City misses housing targets

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It seems quaint, but there was a time not long ago when real estate professionals recommended that people spend no more than one third of their income on housing costs.

For many in Petaluma, especially those living in single-income households, this is no longer possible. In the current housing crisis, even residents with well-paying middle-class jobs can barely afford tent space at the Petaluma KOA on one third of their income.

More often, middle-class residents are forced to spend half or more of their paycheck on monthly rent, a proposition that leaves little left over for savings and puts home ownership essentially out of reach. Far from just a Petaluma problem, the housing crisis spans the Bay Area, and is the result of cities adding jobs but not building enough housing to accommodate the new workers.

One solution to this problem, obviously, is for cities like Petaluma to build more housing. But not all housing is created equal, and what was once considered affordable is now too expensive for many, as wage increases have not kept pace with the skyrocketing cost of housing.

Petaluma is mandated by state law to submit an annual report on progress towards meeting its housing goals as laid out in the city’s housing element, which is codified in the General Plan. The Regional Housing Need Allocation, or RHNA, makes up the housing element’s eight-year goals, from 2015 to 2023.

Halfway through the city’s current housing element, Petaluma’s progress on meeting its RHNA goals has been dismal, at least when it comes to housing for moderate and below-moderate income levels.

By 2023, Petaluma’s goal is to build 322 housing units for above-moderate income levels, or those who make 120% of the median income for this area. Yet the city has already approved 668 above moderate housing units, or 207% of its target.

The city has approved 55 moderate income housing units, or just under half of the 121 units it needs to meet the goal, which is on target midway through the reporting period. But the city has approved just 27 out of 302 units for low and very low income residents who make less than 80% of the median income.

As housing development is left to the private sector, much of the decision about what to build and where are driven by market forces. But governments, by enacting policies to incentivize or penalize, can influence the market and encourage the construction of the types of housing that are needed.

As cities continue to drag their feet on enacting policies that will create the dense, affordable housing that is lacking in communities, state officials are proposing measures to circumvent local control over planning decisions. While decisions about how a community develops should ultimately be made by those living in the community, not lawmakers in Sacramento, cities have been derelict in their duty to house all income levels.

“When it comes to housing, California’s system of almost pure local control hasn’t worked,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, who has authored a bill aimed at boosting housing density around transit and creating more affordable housing by limiting local government’s control over such projects.

However, while the state wields its stick, seemingly punishing local governments for inaction by trying to take away local control, it has not offered much in the way of carrots. One such tool that has been lacking since 2011 is redevelopment agencies, which allowed local governments to keep a greater share of property taxes to use on projects like infrastructure or affordable housing.

Any removal of local planning control should be accompanied by a reauthorization of redevelopment. This two-pronged compromise could lead to cities actually meeting their housing targets.

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