The state Legislature is considering a bill that would loosen the rules requiring cities and counties to periodically rezone for affordable housing. Whether or not it succeeds, Assembly Bill 1103 prompts a reexamination of state and local priorities across an array of housing issues.
California’s system of allocating regional housing needs has long attracted complaints and proposed solutions from throughout the state. Particularly now, as California communities confront economic recession and mass foreclosures, the state’s tradition of mandatory rezonings for affordable housing development is revealing some potential faults.
AB 1103 takes on a handful of those faults in one fell swoop. Perhaps most importantly, the measure would allow a city or county to request an adjustment to its assigned share of housing needs when the data merits. Under this new law, a city or county could ask its council of governments to modify the housing density it’s supposed to rezone, based upon a demonstration that the density is inconsistent with the locality’s designation as metropolitan or nonmetropolitan.
Of course, local officials have always been free to pick up the phone and raise an issue with their COG if they think they’ve been unfairly burdened. But this bill creates a more formal process for a city or county to register its evidence-backed request.
It remains unclear from the bill what legal authority or obligations the COG would have to meet a local government’s request. But it is clear the bill aims to remedy an inherent bluntness in the regional housing needs allocation at a time when nimbleness could be key to meeting local communities’ changing needs.
The state’s process of assigning responsibility for rezonings, by its nature, treats city and county boundaries as prime determinants of density assignments. One downside is it neglects the fact that urbanization (and with it, the need for higher-density affordable housing) often spills over city and county lines, particularly with municipal incorporations on the decline.
For example, the City and County of Sacramento represent a hodgepodge of city and county jurisdictions that only scarcely correlates with the area’s varying population densities. Last year, a ballot initiative failed to incorporate the county’s Arden Arcade neighborhood, a 90,000-resident economic engine growing just east of the City of Sacramento.
Its failed brush with cityhood sets a course for continued growth outside city limits. And consequently, analysts at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments will have to carefully reassess the relevance of Sacramento’s city borders to housing needs.
Statewide, city boundaries’ coincidence with actual housing needs is likely to decline. City incorporations have become more rare over the last two decades, and affordable housing need is generally on the rise, forecasting an increasing potential for arbitrary cutoff points for rezoning obligations.
AB 1103 seems to aim at averting that potential by lending more flexibility to local governments and their housing programs.
But arbitrary density cutoffs are only one of the issues that AB 1103 tackles. Other targets include the glut of foreclosed homes corroding local neighborhoods and the challenge of realizing climate-sustainable growth plans when local officials have so many other priorities to worry about.
That’s right – climate change policies and foreclosures, thrown right in the mess. AB 1103 would use rezoning requirements to incent local officials to convert foreclosed homes into low-income housing stock and align affordable housing rezoning with climate change strategies.
First, this measure would let an affordably rezoned parcel count as one and half towards a city or county’s rezoning obligation as long as the parcel aligns with that locality’s “sustainable communities strategy.” That strategy, required by SB 375, is a long-range, regional land use plan to reduce dependence on vehicles and, consequently, meet regional greenhouse gas reduction goals.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments is currently working to complete its own SB 375 strategy. As a county that has historically struggled to meet its affordable housing rezoning obligations, Sacramento County would probably put this time-and-a-half provision to good use.
Second, AB 1103 would allow local programs that convert foreclosed homes into very low- and low-income housing units to count those converted units toward that locality’s rezoning obligation, for up to 25 percent of its obligation.
Combining these issues in one package, AB 1103 is ambitious. It opens not one but several cans of worms amid a statewide cacophony of fiscal, economic and political dynamics. The issues that break through that noise will reflect substantially on the priorities of state officials, prevailing input of local authorities, and the fortunes of housing programs and their constituencies.