Housing policy conference aims to streamline construction

Housing policy conference aims to streamline construction

The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEC) brought local housing advocates, government officials and policymakers together at the California State University, Monterey Bay Alumni & Visitors Center on June 27 to discuss ways to reach affordable housing goals set by the state of California.

“You cannot recruit business, retain business or hire folks without thinking about housing that’s mixed-use, single-family, affordable or market rate,” said MBEC president Tahra Goraya. “It’s bringing doctors and teachers and others in, and it’s also making sure that farmworkers are housed.”

The state of California requires cities to create a compliant Housing Element plan every eight years and the next one is due Dec. 15. The plan must include a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) requirement, an assessment of the number of new housing units that cities will require through the term of the plan. In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, that number is set by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. The San Benito Council of Governments makes the same assessment for San Benito County, which is determined by the county’s median income.

The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Practical Housing Policy Conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. Photo by Robert Eliason.

According to MBEC Director of Housing and Community Development Gabriel Sanders, a recent study by the organization revealed that the deep need for affordable housing in California is the result of historical and cultural trends. 

In San Benito County, the RHNA is based on a median family income of $105,100 and would require the county to build 5,005 new housing units by the end of 2031. Of that number, 2,947 would be required to be affordable housing.

For Hollister, that would mean building 2,350 affordable housing units out of the 4,163 units required. San Juan Bautista would need 50 affordable units out of the 88 required. The unincorporated areas of the county would need 547 affordable units out of the 754 required.

The results of the MBEC study released in June 2023 recommended five major policy changes to expedite the building of homes needed to relieve the crisis. 

Streamline permitting and reduce discretionary reviews  

The study suggested that discretionary reviews by planning commissions, city councils or the San Benito County Board of Supervisors can introduce challenges to housing approval which are subjective and not necessarily written into law. It recommends “right of approval” mechanisms that would require objective standards which, once met, would override the opposition and streamline the steps leading to construction.

Increase allowable densities

The study advocates for more “efficient use of vacant or non-vacant land” by increasing height limits, increasing the amount of area in a parcel that can be used as floor space, removing units-per-acre limits, and creating bonuses for affordable housing projects which take advantage of all allowable density regulations. Under the plan, parking requirements for new housing units would be reduced or eliminated, suggesting that building near local mass transit would reduce car dependency and thereby reduce the need for more parking.

Reform impact fees

Because impact fees for construction are set at the same rates regardless of size, a 4,000-square-foot home is assessed at the same fee as a 400-square-foot apartment. The study recommends scaling fees by square footage rather than by unit, which would create an incentive to build smaller and more affordable units. The plan also recommends deferring all impact fees until units are ready to be occupied rather than when they are in their early stages. This would delay cities collecting the fees for around two years but would save the developer from having to finance those costs.  

Increase funding sources for affordable housing

According to the study, smaller communities do not have equal opportunities for state and federal resources because they do not have sufficient matching funds. Raising funds through bonds typically requires a 66% voter threshold which may be difficult to reach. In an example drawn from Santa Cruz County, a local parcel tax measure received only 55.9% of the vote, leading to a recommendation that the required threshold be lowered to 55%, a point where passage is more readily assured. Other recommendations include locating unused publicly owned land which could be developed as affordable housing and partnering with local agencies to find otherwise inaccessible funds such as those earmarked for educational or public health institutions.

Optimize inclusionary housing ordinances

The study recommends creating incentives for affordable housing projects through offering bonuses, deferring fees, or making concessions on conditions which place a burden on developments that include inclusionary components. This would allow developers to increasethe number of affordable housing units that would fit their projects.

The study concluded that local policymakers who create zoning rules, set fees and approve developments might not be in step with best practices in the drive toward creating more affordable housing. It recommended that all of these issues be revisited regularly to ensure that policies remain suited to the ever-expanding need for affordable housing.

“This is not just a paper exercise we are doing,” Goraya said. “These are not just boxes. These are homes where people will live. There are a lot of rules when it comes to building affordable units and development, but there are ways to optimize them that do incentivize more affordable housing and greater density.”

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