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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Local governments late with housing plans Local governments late with housing plans (January 09, 2002)

"The housing element has the ability, if it's done correctly by a local government, to remove a lot of [obstacles] to affordable housing," says Julie Snyder of Housing California, a legislative advocacy group.

Each city, town and county must update its housing element about every five years, according to state law. The housing element is the part of the general plan that identifies how the town wants to develop, and how it will allow that development.

Each municipality is given quotas to meet the projected housing needs for all economic segments of the community, from very-low- to above-moderate-income people.

Bay Area jurisdictions were required to adopt new housing elements and submit them to the state for review by December 31, 2001, says Linda Wheaton, a housing policy specialist with California's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Some jurisdictions, such as East Palo Alto, met that deadline. But many, including Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, and Woodside, are still months away from adopting their housing elements.

"Frankly, most people don't get it in on time," says Paul Dirksen of the state's housing and community development department.

Atherton and Woodside, having submitted drafts in November and December, are farther along than Menlo Park and Portola Valley.

Advocates say that housing elements are vital to getting more affordable housing built.

Regional bodies _ in the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) _ decide how many new housing units, at each income level, each city must make room for, using zoning or other regulations that encourage or discourage new housing.

If land isn't zoned for a multi-family project, "a zoning fight can add months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to [the] project, and can conceivably make it infeasible," says Ms. Snyder.

Advocates say that some jurisdictions don't take the housing element requirements seriously. Though the state and regional governments set quotas, they do little to punish those that don't meet them.

State Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, last year proposed a bill that would have financially penalized jurisdictions that don't adopt compliant housing elements.

The bill, SB 910, was approved by the Senate, but never voted on in the Assembly.

At the request of Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee, Sen. Dunn agreed to meet with local government representatives, who had opposed his bill and called for incentives instead of punishments to encourage compliance, says Mark Stivers, Sen. Dunn's legislative consultant.

State Sen. Dunn intends to propose another bill in 2002 to make the housing element law more enforceable, Mr. Stivers says, but it's not clear yet what kind of carrots or sticks he might propose this time.

For now, the pressure to force towns, cities and counties to complete their housing elements and meet the ABAG numbers is limited.

Those that are late or don't comply may be ineligible for certain state grants, especially for housing programs, said Karen Kristiansson, a contract planner working on Portola Valley's housing element. Housing advocates could also sue the jurisdiction, but that is not common.

"Some communities are doing a better job than others," says Shannon Dodge, regional coordinator for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside were last required to adopt certified housing elements about 10 years ago, she notes _ and only Portola Valley adopted one that the state deemed acceptable.

Advocates, as well as planners for the cities and towns, are hopeful that they'll do better this time around.

Atherton and Woodside submitted draft elements that would meet the ABAG housing quotas for all income categories, town staff members reported. (After the state comments, the towns can adopt a final housing element; the state will judge if it complies with the housing element law.)

Menlo Park and Portola Valley staff estimate they are from two to six months away from submitting drafts. Their staff members also say they are optimistic about meeting their ABAG quotas.

Portola Valley is awaiting the outcome of a controversial debate to rezone the Nathhorst Triangle commercial area. Menlo Park, required to account for 982 new housing units _ more than its three neighbors combined _ is doing an environmental impact report to assess the impacts, especially on traffic, of meeting that number.


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