By Ann Duwe
While every city in California was trying to create an acceptable housing element, the city councils, their consultants and we, the citizens, lost sight of the larger picture. What is slipping away is our ability to participate in shaping the communities where we live.
Housing elements, due Jan. 31, must show how jurisdictions can meet demands for new housing at various levels of affordability. These demands are handed down by California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in the form of Regional Housing Allocation Numbers (RHNA). Numbers for the current cycle are far greater than the numbers for the previous eight-year cycle. For example, the RHNA number for Los Altos Hills jumped from 121 in the fifth cycle (2015-2022) to 489, for the sixth cycle (2023-2031), an increase of 300%.
The RHNA numbers arrive unfunded, towing behind them threats of severe penalties for noncompliance. Fear keeps cities and counties from challenging the RHNA numbers, regardless of the impossibility of building all the units outlined in their housing elements. In this way, cities and counties are complicit in handing over local control of new housing to HCD, whose staff has likely never set foot in communities for which they make decisions.
There is no review mechanism for the numbers HCD imposes. In March 2022, the Assistant State Auditor reviewed the methods and RHNA numbers for the current cycle and found them faulty. The Embarcadero Institute of Palo Alto found the numbers and procedures faulty as well. Yet no one has authority to stop the train as it slowly derails local control and sends it to HCD.
Now is the time for cities and counties to sue HCD to prevent compounding the errors. Jurisdictions have already spent thousands of taxpayer dollars preparing their housing elements. Los Altos Hills, with only 8,489 residents, budgeted $350,000, just for planning consultants, in an earnest attempt to satisfy HCD. The money would have been better spent joining nearby cities to map out the best sites for realistic numbers of no-cost, low-cost and moderate-cost housing.
Success takes careful planning by experienced urban planners in concert with people who know their communities well. It takes buy-in from all the stakeholders, and it takes a great deal of money. Unfunded mandates from public agencies have no chance of producing large numbers of affordable housing units.
We, the citizens, must urge our city councils to resist HCD’s bad numbers and bold power grab.
Ann Duwe has lived in Los Altos Hills for 45 years.