Bay Area cities face long odds in fighting state-mandated housing goals

San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 2021

By J.K. Dineen


Cities across the Bay Area are howling in protest over the ambitious housing production goals the state has imposed on them. But in a California political environment where the housing affordability crisis ranks at the top of the agenda, it’s unlikely that any of the protests will gain a sympathetic ear in Sacramento, according to experts.


At issue is how the California Department of Housing and Community Development will divvy up the 441,176 housing units it has determined need to be produced between 2022 and 2030. While the goal is lofty — it’s more than doubling the 187,900 required in the current Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA, cycle — policymakers argue that level of production is needed in order to keep up with growth and alleviate the crisis that has fueled an increase in homelessness and a flight from California to more affordable states.


Some 28 Bay Area cities and counties have appealed the state’s efforts to dictate how much housing they will be required to approve over the next eight-year cycle — known as RHNA goals — citing everything from wildfire to flooding to a shrinking jobs base in their argument as to why they should not be on the hook for so much residential development.


In many of the appeals the gap is extreme between the state’s mandated number and what the local jurisdiction thinks is fair and realistic. Sausalito, for example, is asking for an 83% reduction. Dublin, Danville, San Anselmo, Pleasant Hill and Ross are all looking for a decrease of more than 50%.


At a July 6 Danville Town Council meeting, Vice Mayor Newell Arnerich ticked off the reasons why an appeal was imperative. The town has a shrinking jobs base, not a growing one, and thus requiring that dense housing be developed on scarce available land would worsen traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, not improve those things, he said.


“We have been dealt a set of cards that makes no sense from an environmental point of view. They are the exact opposite of everything from jobs to housing balance,” he said, noting the “39 years of history we have developed in our planning process to create Danville and what it looks like today.”


While several of the appeals by bedroom communities echo Danville’s concerns, many cite environmental reasons for opposing higher numbers. The city of Alameda says it can’t meet state housing goals because it would be prone to flooding and “vulnerable to severe ground shaking” during earthquakes. Lafayette argues that parcels the state has identified for housing developments — including its BART parking lots — are in “very high fire hazard severity zones.”


But most, if not all, of the appeals are sure to be rejected, according to Michael Lane, state policy director for the urban think tank SPUR. Earlier this year, 47 cities and counties in Southern California appealed their allocation numbers. All the appeals were rejected. So far the courts have tossed out lawsuits filed against the state housing agency by jurisdictions objecting to their RHNA number.


While the appeals may not gain any traction, the process provides political cover for elected officials and city managers who want to show they are making an effort to push back against state-mandated housing goals.


“I think it’s a political exercise as much as anything, to show the residents they are fighting,” Lane said.


In the process leading up to the current RHNA cycle, which started in 2014 and ends next year, some suburbs successfully appealed their numbers, which resulted in units reallocated from bedroom towns to lower-income cities, like Richmond. That will not happen this time, Lane said.


“We are seeing the usual attempts to shift the burden on housing to lower-income communities and it’s not working this time around,” Lane said. “If you read the list of appellants it’s like a who’s-who of elite country club communities.”


The difference is that this time around there is an awareness that two decades of underproduction of housing is making California unsustainable.


“There is a reckoning in terms of all the housing we didn’t build over the last two decades,” Lane said. “The Legislature and the governor has gotten serious.”


Alameda resident Zac Bowling, a housing advocate who has done an analysis of the 28 appeals, said while the objections are technically directed at state bureaucrats, they are really meant to appease voters.


“Politicians are stomping their feet and letting people know that they are representing the will of the people who put them in there, knowing full well it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said. “But you have to take the heat as a local official and you have to have something to point to. Now they have it in writing.”


Kelsey Banes, a Palo Alto resident who heads up Peninsula for Everyone, said she was surprised there were not more appeals south of San Francisco. She expected appeals from several cities in San Mateo County, including Atherton and Hillsborough. No San Mateo cities appealed.


Banes’ city, Palo Alto, is seeking a 25% reduction from 7,586 to 6,086 units. In its appeal Palo Alto argues that a cap it has placed on commercial development would curtail job growth, thus improving the jobs/housing imbalance that leads to traffic gridlock and increased greenhouse gas emissions. The city also pointed to COVID-era remote working trends as an indication that fewer workers will need to reside in Palo Alto, which has eight jobs for every one housing unit.


“In the Silicon Valley, as many of the tech industries are embracing telecommuting, the percentage of workforce telecommuting could be much higher,” Palo Alto states in its appeal.


Banes said the appeal is driven by an anti-housing city council that has regularly blocked residential development, including a proposed 112-unit mixed-use redevelopment of the Cubberley Community Center. In recent months, city councilors have been critical of several other housing projects, including 290 units at 3997 Fabian Way and 24 apartments at 2241 Wellesley Ave.


“It’s an anti-housing majority that built its power by organizing campaigns opposing housing,” Banes said. “They are true believers in local control and giving power to the residents, but they are not interested in listening to the voices of the pro-housing residents.”


Laura Foote, executive director of Yimby Action, a San Francisco-based housing advocacy group, said several recent pieces of statewide housing legislation make this year’s RHNA process the most important ever. This includes a law that says cities that fail to meet their goals could lose local land use authority on projects with at least 20% affordable units.


“The consequences of ignoring your RHNA goal are much higher than they were before,” she said. “Cities are recognizing that this time it’s not a game. It’s going to be serious and we actually have to hit these goals.”

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