On March 8, 2017, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released its report Do Communities Adequately Plan for Housing?, which considers whether the housing elements of city and county general plans achieve their objective of meeting housing needs. The report is not optimistic. While it offers a few suggestions that the Legislature could consider to encourage cities and counties to increase their housing supplies, the report concludes that real change will only come with a “major shift in how communities and their residents think about and value new housing.” Without a paradigm shift in favor of more residential development, “no state intervention is likely to make significant progress on addressing the state’s housing needs.”
As reported in LAO’s earlier report, California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences (March, 2015), home prices and rents are higher in California than nearly anywhere else in the U.S. These high costs are driven by a lack of housing supply to meet the state’s demand. To combat this, Governor Brown proposed creating new state rules to streamline housing development approvals. In Considering Changes to Streamline Local Housing Approvals (May, 2016), the LAO considered this streamlining proposal, but cautioned that streamlining provisions would have little effect if local planning and zoning rules did not provide adequate opportunities for projects to take advantage of the streamlining. In the new report, the LAO builds upon these previous studies to consider how the state government could influence local planning and zoning rules to encourage cities and counties to approve more housing development projects.
The report explains that the primary existing means for the state to combat inadequate local planning and zoning laws is the state’s Housing Element Law. This law requires city and county general plans to include a housing element, which outlines a long-term plan to meet the community’s existing and projected housing demands. The housing element must also demonstrate how the city or county plans to accommodate its “fair share” of the regional housing needs allocated to that community as part of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process. Each housing element must provide an inventory of sites designated for new housing sufficient to meet the community’s fair share of regional housing needs.
The new LAO report looks at existing deficiencies in local housing elements. It notes that forecasting housing needs and identifying ideal sites for future housing, is difficult, and rarely accurate. Community resistance to new housing complicates this already difficult task. Residents frequently push back against the projections of future housing needs and question whether their community should bear the responsibility of accommodating new growth. Partly because of this push-back, many cities and counties seem to place a low priority on updating their planning and zoning laws to accommodate future housing needs. Indeed, about one-fifth of cities and counties have gone more than 20 years without a comprehensive update to their land use and circulation elements. With limited staff and budget, the California Department of Housing and Community Development can do little to ensure that cities and counties are fully vetting the sites available to them for future housing.
The report further explains that evidence shows that the housing element process is not meeting its goals. For one, recent RHNA projections are not fully capturing demand for housing in many communities. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay area, cities and counties permitted roughly the amount of housing projected to be needed to meet their fair share of regional housing needs, but the evidence shows there is still significant unmet demand for housing. Typical monthly rents exceed $2,000, more than twice the national average, demonstrating that there is a housing shortage in the Bay Area.
Further, there are disincentives to homebuilding that make it difficult to anticipate places where developers will ultimately propose housing. For instance, housing element inventories frequently overlook sites that need a zone change to accommodate new housing. The Housing Element Law is supposed to encourage local agencies to rezone properties that could accommodate residential development, but many local agencies fail to do so.
The report offers a few options for the Legislature to consider to make the Housing Element Law more effective. First, the process of developing RHNA projections could be improved to better account for unmet housing demands and give cities and counties a more realistic view of their housing needs. For instance, communities with high rents could be projected to have a higher RHNA goal, since higher rents typically mean there is a housing shortage. The state could also increase local fiscal incentives to build housing, but doing this could be difficult to implement, particularly if it would require tax increases.
The report ends by noting that absent dramatic changes to preempt local land use decisionmaking—which would likely be met with fervent resistance—there is not much the state can do to ensure cities and counties approve a sufficient amount of new housing development projects to meet all income needs. As concluded in the report:
Convincing Californians that a large increase in home building—one that would change the character of communities—could substantially better the lives of future residents and future generations necessitates difficult conversations led by elected officials and other community leaders interested in those goals. Unless Californians are convinced of the benefits of more home building—targeted at meeting demand at every income level—the ability of the state to alter local planning decisions is limited.