In a joint meeting July 14, Cloverdale city council members and planning commissioners heard an overview of new pro-development state housing laws all with one common thread: less local control over residential development in the interest of combating the housing crisis.
According to Alex Mog of the law firm Meyers Nave, who gave the presentation before the joint session, over 20 bills designed to compel cities to streamline housing projects meeting certain criteria have come out of the California legislature and been signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Of those 20, Mog went into detail on four of particular importance to Cloverdale particularly: SB 35, SB 330, the Housing Accountability Act and the Density Bonus Law. The laws uniformly make development easier, and while more housing units are desperately needed across the state, cities like Cloverdale may experience hindrances to effective and locally designated long-term planning goals.
The laws allow developers building low-income and affordable (subsidized) housing to bypass many development standards ordained by local jurisdictions. A project’s affordability is determined as a function of average median income (AMI), and there are four key income designations, with income increasing from less than 50% at very low income to 120% and higher at above moderate (market rate).
Under the four laws examined, projects that provide a high percentage of affordable units are incentivized.
Per the Density Bonus Law, for instance, developers can receive “density bonuses” directly proportional to the percentage of affordable housing units per project. This means that developers building affordable projects can exceed density limits as determined through city planning in areas zoned for residential.
Other incentives to developers at the cost of local jurisdictional control include expedited and streamlined application processes for qualified projects, and allows developers to ignore city-determined standards such as requirements for parking and amenities, height limitations and architectural standards.
“The city spends a lot of time coming up with standards, and this allows projects to exempt themselves from those standards,” Mog said. “You really have to find an impact that can’t be mitigated to deny a project.”
State law also prohibits moratoria on housing, except when required to ensure public health and safety. The de facto moratorium currently in place by Cloverdale as a response to the drought would not violate the laws while the water supply remains low, for instance.
Council members, even those pro-development, were not excited about the one-size-fits-all approach mandated by the state.
Councilmember Joe Palla criticized the state for overriding local control. “Basically we have no power as a community if we meet within these conditions. It’s very disappointing, it’s very frustrating, and I know the people in the community are very upset about a lot of different rumors going around about these big projects that are on the drawing board,” he said.
Vice Mayor Todd Lands lamented the laws’ ignorance of standards for issues such as parking, saying it would cause problems for residents in low-income, high-density developments.
“Without the parking spots, when you have affordable and low-income housing, it cuts out people’s ability to go to work. I know one of the projects on the books is almost 200 parking spots short, and it’s being allowed through,” Lands said.
While Councilmember Melanie Bagby disapproves of how the laws can override the city’s general plan, inconsiderate of transit and density requirements, for instance, she said that, like it or not, Cloverdale has to develop.
“We’re going to have to change. We do need to develop. We do need to bring more people into a walkable, bikeable downtown that can support local businesses and a local economy. Instead of this turning into a big battle ... why don’t we just get real? We do need to take this opportunity to diversify our housing stock. We have to take these new laws and make them work for us. We have to ask ‘What can we do?’” she said.
In addition to the housing laws mentioned above, the state also exerts control over development in cities through funding tied to Regional Housing Allocation Needs (RHNA) numbers. In eight-year cycles, the state determines the number of housing units required to meet statewide demand, and parcels those numbers out to smaller, local jurisdictions, such as, in Cloverdale’s case, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Organizations like ABAG then further parcel out those numbers to cities.
RHNA numbers are broken down by income category, with emphasis on providing affordable and low-income units for which cities may be otherwise unwilling to plan. For the next eight-year cycle beginning in 2022, Cloverdale is must build 278 new units, only 39 of which must fall in the very-low income category. Vice Mayor Lands said that Cloverdale’s RHNA numbers will be relatively easy to meet, with 112 of the units at market rate, because it is already a low-income city.
Still, projects taking advantage of the new laws are eligible for their benefits even if RHNA numbers have already been met.