The two of us have spent several decades working on housing issues from different perspectives — one as a local government planning director and the other as a nonprofit housing builder. Despite our different perspectives, common themes have emerged, and we see several specific actions that can be taken to improve housing affordability.
Cities and counties can help “front-load” the planning and permitting process by adopting neighborhood-level development plans in areas suitable for increased housing density and infill development. Known as specific plans, these long-range planning tools are more than a zoning map. A good specific plan spells out design requirements for buildings, amenities and infrastructure, shows how improvements will be financed and includes an upfront environmental clearance under the California Environmental Quality Act. This planning increases predictability for future housing providers and reduces the time and cost of the permitting process. Santa Rosa’s specific plan efforts are a good example. The state Legislature and governor can help jump-start these planning efforts by increasing funding for long range planning.
The state Legislature can provide immediate help by improving California’s environmental review process. A recent study showed that nearly 60 percent of CEQA lawsuits were filed against infill development projects. The costs of CEQA litigation — in time and money — can be devastating for an affordable housing project. We believe the CEQA process can be streamlined without compromising environmental quality. The existing CEQA exemptions for infill housing projects can be expanded. Reforms also are needed to reduce the ability of housing opponents to raise last-minute CEQA issues as a delay tactic.
A candid conversation about development impact fees is overdue. In the nearly 40 years since Proposition 13, impact fees have become an important funding source for public infrastructure. They are also the most regressive revenue source in our history. In many places, all units, from mansions to studio apartments, pay almost the same fees. While reducing fees on all housing, like Santa Rosa has done recently with its sewer and water fees, would be beneficial for housing supply, the fee burden is greatest for smaller units. We should move to a fee based on living area for higher density, low-income affordable housing.
We have seen a dramatic increase in regulatory complexity and the cost of compliance. New regulations affecting land development and building construction are added every year. These regulations originate from a worthwhile purpose, whether it’s health and safety, energy conservation, environmental protection or accessibility and equity. But compliance comes at a cost that is seldom, if ever, acknowledged at the state level. We believe that the cost of compliance should be considered for all new regulations, including the relationship between benefits and costs.While public funding, loan guarantees and tax breaks have a long history in providing low income housing and home ownership opportunities, we are in a time where even greater public commitment is needed.
There is resistance to this policy direction, and the question of why government needs to commit more public money to housing is a legitimate one. One answer is that government has restricted housing supply to accomplish other public policy goals and has used new housing to fund everything from public infrastructure to saving endangered species and reducing global warming; and the bill has come due. Another answer is that while housing supply must be increased, Sonoma County, as with most coastal areas, will never build its way out of the affordability crisis. Incomes of lower income people have not kept up with actual building costs. If wage stagnation is a long-term trend, the most effective way to prevent it from reducing more people to poverty, will be to make sure that we have decent housing for all.
Pete Parkinson is former director of Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department. John Lowry is former executive director of Santa Rosa-based Burbank Housing Corp.