Common Community Concerns
There are several common issues that can invite skepticism or opposition to housing proposals. Listed below are some of the most important.
Design and Density
Population growth. Growth is a controversial issue in many communities. Residents may be worried that adding people to their community will diminish their quality of life. Some of the most common concerns related to population growth are increased traffic, crowded schools, and over-burdened public services and facilities. The reality is that California’s population continues to grow, surpassing 40 million residents in 2019, and is projected to reach 50 million by 2050. So for most parts of the state, not planning for additional housing is not a realistic option.
Neighborhood character and design. New development often brings change to established neighborhoods. Residents may fear that new housing — especially affordable housing — will adversely affect the character of a neighborhood. Because there is a widespread stereotype that affordable housing is cheap or inferior housing, neighbors may oppose projects based on preconceived notions regarding poor design and construction quality. This is especially true in communities where older housing may have been built in inappropriate locations or without the benefit of modern building and design codes.
Strategies to Offset Concerns about Design and Density
- Communicate the difference between density and form and scale. Residents may be concerned about height or design of new development, not necessarily density. Simply, and clearly, communicating about form and design of new construction may help assuage some community concerns.
- Disperse affordable housing throughout the community. Through a housing element, a local government can be mindful of areas identified for low income housing development and avoid locating a disproportionate amount in any one area. Additionally, dispersing affordable housing throughout your community allows for affordable housing to be placed in areas of opportunity which includes greater access to jobs, services, high-performing schools and amenities, overall contributing to improving economic outcomes for future generations.
- Adopt an Inclusionary Housing Program. Inclusionary housing programs may require developers to sell/rent 10 to 20 percent of new residential units to low income residents. Many programs offset this cost by offering developers incentives like parking requirement reductions or the right to build at higher densities. These programs often allow developers to choose among alternatives like paying and in-lieu fee or providing off-site units if it is not feasible to include affordable housing in new market-rate developments.
- Adopt design and/or development standards or form-based codes. A local government can develop design and/or development standards that are objective, or form-based codes that guide the design, form and in some cases density of future development through community engagement. This process can also help engage the community upfront on how they would like their neighborhoods to look. Adopting standards and design criteria can benefit both your community members by allowing them to be engaged in the process up-front and gauge their vision for how they want the community to look like while also benefiting developers by providing more certainty and predictability during the entitlement process.
- Highlight the benefits of density:
- Mixed-use developments increase access to shops and services. This can also have the added benefit of strengthening existing businesses and attract new retail, restaurants and services.
- Building housing in existing neighborhoods can reduce other infrastructure costs if the existing stock can accommodate the added population.
- High-density neighborhoods are more walkable and easier to provide transit services to. This in turn reduces reliance on cars which not only can be a large benefit for low-income residents who may not be able to afford cars, but also help reduce GHG emissions by encouraging residents to drive less.
Gentrification and Displacement
In some ways, anxiety about gentrification is the flip side of the concern about declining property values. Often, affordable housing is developed in order to improve the quality and choices available to residents in disadvantaged or struggling neighborhoods.
However, sometimes this housing — particularly moderate-income and market-rate housing — is unaffordable to current residents. In addition, existing housing may be demolished to make way for new projects. In these cases, inhabitants fear that they will be physically displaced or priced out of their own neighborhood to make way for more affluent residents.
Strategies to Address Gentrification Concerns
The Urban Displacement Project outlines a number of strategies that may address concerns around gentrification and displacement.
- Affordable Housing Production Strategies: Impact fees, housing production trust-funds, expedited permitting, inclusionary housing, ADUs.
- Preservation Strategies: Rent stabilization, no-net-loss strategies, single-room occupancy hotels rent and conversion controls.
- Tenant Protection: Rental assistance, tenant counseling, a Just Cause Eviction Policy.
- Asset Building and Local Economic Development: Homeowner assistance programs, wage theft protections.
Neighborhood opposition to affordable housing (and other development projects) is often driven by concerns about the vehicle traffic that residents fear the project will generate.
Typically local agency staff will assess the project’s impacts on traffic flows and develop measures to improve mobility. Coordinating transportation and land use planning will reduce auto trip generation and reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In light of SB 743, which will begin implementation in July 2020, agencies will need to shift the focus of transportation impact analysis in CEQA from measuring impacts to drivers, to measuring the impact of driving. The new metrics for land use projects are VMT per capita, VMT per employee, and net VMT for transportation analysis. Once these new guidelines go into effect, auto delay will no longer be considered a significant impact under CEQA.11 This will mean a shift away from traditional strategies like installing traffic signals, adding new lanes, or modifying driveways and access roads to strategies that decrease VMTs and encourage active transportation.
However, in many cases reducing congestion is not the primary traffic concern residents may have about a development project. Particularly in established neighborhoods, issues such as speeding, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and noise may rank as a higher concern.
Strategies to Calm Traffic and Increase Active Transportation Options
In recent years, transportation planners and traffic engineers have developed innovative “traffic calming” and “active transportation” strategies to both address neighborhood traffic concerns and encourage active transportation (i.e., walking, biking, transit, and other alternatives to automobiles) that can improve overall community health and mobility. These strategies include;
- Enhanced pedestrian crossings that may be raised, lit, striped specially, or constructed of different materials;
- Protected bike lanes, on-street bike lanes, and off-street shared pedestrian-bike paths;
- Widened sidewalks and landscaped parking strips;
- Transit stops along transit corridors with shelters, lighting;
- Intersection bulbs and median islands;
- Traffic circles and roundabouts;
- “Slow streets” with physical features designed to slow traffic; and
- Partial or total traffic diverters.
11Public Resources Code Section 21099
Sometimes residents or community activists may oppose affordable housing projects, like other proposals for development, on environmental grounds. Local agencies have a number of ways to respond to these concerns. Some of the most common impacts that generate concern among residents include loss of open space, air and water pollution, or exposure to toxic compounds at contaminated sites proposed for development.
CEQA analysis and mitigation. In California, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides a comprehensive tool to assess and mitigate the adverse environmental impacts of development.
Local agencies typically include a number of standard mitigation measures in the environmental documents they prepare for the general plan and other local plans. These measures are then applied as appropriate to specific development projects, based on the project-level environmental analysis.
Where the analysis shows that the standard measures are not sufficient to fully mitigate the environmental impacts, local agencies must consider additional feasible measures.
For example, the environmental analysis may determine that the site proposed for affordable housing was used in the past by an industrial effort that left behind toxic contaminants in the soil and groundwater.
Strategies to Address Environmental Quality Concern
- Ensure the cleanup of the site achieves levels considered safe for residential use;
- Require the partial cleanup, capping, and containment of toxics on site sufficient to allow another use (such as a parking lot) with a lower risk of human exposure;
- Relocate the project to a portion of the site that is not hazardous, or to another location altogether;
- Override the environmental considerations after determining that no feasible project alternatives or mitigation measures exist; or
- Deny the application.
Measures to identify, analyze and mitigate the environmental impacts of a project are adopted following an extensive public review process. This process provides the local agency with many opportunities to demonstrate to the public that legitimate environmental concerns have been addressed.
Green buildings and smart growth neighborhoods
One way local agencies can address environmental concerns when considering affordable housing projects and other development proposals is by applying “green building” design standards and “smart growth” neighborhood development criteria.
Green buildings are designed and built to reduce their impact on the environment. Smart growth refers to land use principles and practices that balance economic development with social and environmental concerns.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. The Green Building Council calls LEED “the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings.”
The Green Building Council recently created a pilot program to establish and test LEED standards for neighborhood development and design. The program incorporates both smart growth and green building criteria.
Public Facilities and Services
Resistance to new development sometimes stems from concerns that growth will over-burden public facilities and services to the detriment of existing residents. This resistance applies to a wide range of land uses, not simply affordable housing.
These are among the most challenging issues for local agencies to resolve. While observers differ over the precise amount, there is general agreement that there is a substantial funding shortfall to construct and maintain public infrastructure of all kinds in California.12 State law limits the revenues and fiscal tools available to local agencies. Fiscal restrictions and inadequate funding make it difficult to expand and upgrade existing public services and facilities to accommodate population growth.
In addition, there are many public facilities and services that may not be under the control of the local agency making land use decisions on affordable housing.
- Counties administer state-mandated health, welfare and social service programs, which serve residents in both incorporated and unincorporated areas.
- School districts are responsible for siting, constructing, modernizing and operating K–12 public schools. School districts cannot place conditions on new development to ensure adequate school facilities. In addition, cities and counties are restricted in the fees they can levy to provide schools to serve new development.
- In many communities, separate special districts administer other important public services. Examples include parks and recreation, libraries, fire and emergency medical response, water supply and wastewater treatment.
This fragmented authority can create situations in which local agencies may not be able to assure that services or facilities under the control of other agencies will be provided as needed to serve new development. However, this also provides an opportunity for local governments to partner with local entities to plan for the services and facilities that can help development occur.
Strategies to Address the Impacts on Public Facilities and Services
- Local agencies can develop a long-range capital improvement program (CIP) as part of the general plan to serve as a guide for the expansion of public facilities to accommodate growth as well as the needs of existing residents. The CIP can include a budget and schedule for developing public facilities to serve affordable housing projects. This can reassure the public that the new housing will not impose an undue burden on the community.
- Local agencies can coordinate with other agencies to develop needed facilities together. For example, cities or counties can work with schools or special districts to jointly develop community facilities such as parks, athletic fields, community centers and libraries. This avoids duplication and saves money.
- Local agencies can establish fees for housing and commercial development that fully cover the costs of providing needed public facilities. Affordable housing projects and infill projects that make use of existing infrastructure can be assessed a lower fee or have the fees waived.
- Mixed- use projects can also raise funds to provide public infrastructure concurrently with housing and commercial development.
12See Ellen Hanek and Mark Baldassare (eds.), California 2025: Taking on the Future, Public Policy Institute of California (2005).