Policy Considerations for Housing in California Communities
Pursuant to the 2019 Housing Package, statute requires the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to designate pro-housing jurisdictions. In turn, jurisdictions are provided incentives through different funding programs such as AHSC, TCC, and IIG. The Pro-housing policies identified in statute are known strategies to streamline housing approvals and accelerate housing production in an effort to create more housing in California communities.
Pro-housing policies provide an important opportunity for communities to engage more comprehensively and in early phases of planning. This underscores the importance of thorough, authentic community engagement and trust building during broader planning activities such as a general plan and housing element updates.
Rezone to Permit By-right
Discretionary review of proposed development projects tends to increase the public and private cost of the entitlement process for all types of new housing. It can also increase the duration of project approval, effectively discouraging housing developments of all types. By rezoning to permit by-right, local jurisdictions can reduce development costs for new homes by implementing policies and procedures that create a transparent, predictable path to adoption for projects. Rezoning for additional housing capacity without requiring additional permits or public hearings removes the discretionary process thereby decreasing the time and cost of a housing project as long as it conforms to development standards in the locally adopted plan and/or ordinances. Rezoning may also help local governments comply with new housing element requirements imposed by AB 1397. This law places stricter requirements on sites identified to meet Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) goals for low-income households. Previously identified sites may only be included in new housing elements as sites to accommodate lower income RHNA if they are rezoned for by-right development.
Developing objective design standards or pre-approved site and architectural plans can facilitate non-discretionary permitting and streamline the housing approval process. In 2017, SB 35 provided for a streamlined, ministerial approval process for multi-unit residential development in localities that have not met their Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) targets for any given year. These standards involve “no personal or subjective judgement by any local official and are uniformly verifiable by reference to an external and uniform benchmark, or criterion available and knowable by both the development applicant or proponent and the public official.”
Specific Plans or Form-Based Codes Coupled with CEQA Streamlining
Designating and rezoning for additional housing capacity, or preparing specific plans or form-based codes that include zoning and development and design standards and plan-level environmental analysis, can be used to streamline future housing projects and facilitate affordability.
Specific Plans are comprehensive planning documents that guide the development of a defined geographic area to include a mix of uses such as residential, commercial, industrial, schools, parks and open space. Specific plans can contain detailed regulations, conditions, programs, and design criteria unique to a designated area, and serve to implement the General Plan. The CEQA Guidelines also allow for streamlining environmental review for residential projects that are consistent with an adopted specific plan and EIR (see CEQA Guidelines Section 15182).
Form Based Codes place a primary emphasis on the physical form such as building types, dimensions, parking locations and façade features and less emphasis on uses. The focus on building and street design in form-based codes allows graphics and photos – instead of lengthy, repetitive text – to explain the details of zoning requirements. In turn, these codes are much more democratic instruments, because they are easier to understand by a variety of interested parties.
Accessory Dwelling Units or Other Innovative Building Strategies
Encouraging Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and other innovative building types can be an important strategy for communities that want to increase density and avoid the high infrastructure costs of new developments. Because ADUs tend to be relatively small with modest amenities, they provide more affordable housing options for select groups, such as students, seniors and people with disabilities. In addition, ADUs can provide additional income to homeowners. Creating ADU programs that engage residents about the opportunities of ADUs, creating pre-approved ADU prototypes, adopting a local ordinance and waiving fees are a few things local governments can do to encourage ADUs in their community.
Uncertain timelines and exhaustive permit review make it harder to quickly and inexpensively develop quality-housing stock in California communities. Speeding up approvals and permit processing, including instituting programs that streamline or consolidate the review process, can not only speed up the production of housing in your community, but can offer incentives for desired projects such in-fill development, affordable housing and/or sustainable development projects.
Housing Related Infrastructure Financing and Fee Reduction Strategies
While state revenues can, and should, be part of any housing solution, there may be other, equally effective ways for California local governments to accomplish their goals for sustainable economic growth, affordable housing, and environmental health, such as:
Developing and implementing approaches for local, regional, or sub-regional housing-related infrastructure financing.
Creating plans and programs to finance and increase infrastructure with accompanying enhanced housing capacity, such as enhanced infrastructure financing districts.
Establishing fee reduction and rationalization approaches, such as reassessing fees to adhere to best practices in reducing costs, deferrals, sliding scales, or proportionate impacts fees (e.g., ADUs, transit-oriented and infill development, special needs housing), or fee transparency measures including publicly available fee calculators.
Excessive parking requirements or parking minimum can play a significant role in adding to the cost of building housing, and in return increasing rents and making proposed developments less affordable to lower and moderate households. Strategically reducing or eliminating parking requirements for sites or areas that are zoned for residential development can help ensure projects pencil out, become more affordable with ultimately increasing housing units in your communities, and also help you achieve local, regional, and the state’s environmental goals.