A state-mandated October deadline looms over the city to cough up space for 24,000 new homes, but some Riversiders are left wondering if they are only “best-laid plans.”
The Community and Economic Development Department, or CEDD, is working in partnership with six consultant companies as they prepare to finalize a draft of the city’s Housing Element for its General Plan. California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, is how the state allocates its overall housing need to each county and city.
For the 2021-2029 Housing Element Cycle, RHNA allocated 18,415 of the state’s total housing need to Riverside. The CEDD says they need to place the maximum at 24,000 for a 30 percent buffer.
In order to pave the way for private developer interest, as the city is not the party responsible for building the housing units, the CEDD must submit available locations by October 15.
A brief history
For 50 years, California has experienced a housing shortage that grows increasingly difficult to recuperate from each consecutive year. The imbalance between housing supply and demand takes its toll on residents in a few ways.
- Only 26 percent of California families could afford to purchase a home in 2020, according to the California Association of Realtors.
- Nearly 12 percent of Californians are living in poverty and 27 percent of the nation’s total homeless population resides in California.
- High housing costs in urban centers, where many jobs are, make several California cities home to the largest share of super commuters in the nation.
The state’s attempt to curb these statistics began in 1969, when officials enacted the Housing Element Law. The law requires that all California cities and counties prepare detailed plans for residential needs by including housing as an element of their general plans.
Tom Hunt, president of the board for Riverside Unified School District, said when he heard how the city had to tackle the state’s requirement, he saw an uneven distribution of homes to schools.
“There are only so many places the city can consider,” Hunt said, “But what we’re asking for is to ensure that they pay attention to the schools that would serve those neighborhoods.”
Under his direction, Hunt’s position has been to eliminate the need for modular classrooms placed on the lawns outside elementary and high schools. He wants to avoid the need for long bus routes that bring students 45 minutes to an hour away from home to learn.
If new housing does not match proportionately with available school space, those initiatives are left to the wayside according to Hunt.
Matthew Taylor, project manager and senior planner with the CEDD, said he wants to set the record straight. “We have to plan for this number of units but we are not under any obligation to make sure they’re built but that they are planned for,” he said. “If there is a market demand for this number of units, the runway is clear for them.”
For the current RHNA cycle, the city broke up their allocation into the following categories of affordability: Very low, low, moderate, and above moderate. The community-informed map of potential space and rezoning areas are available on the CEDD’s project website.
Andrew Woodard, founder of Riverside civil engineering firm Woodard Group, sympathized with the city’s task but said the real burden is on the private developer.
“When the city has to come up with 18,000 homes but only plans for some of them, the state gets to ride in off their high and mighty perch and say, ‘the city isn’t meeting their goals and now they have to turn all this commercial zoning into residential,’” Woodard said.
Rezoning property throughout the city may be one of the ways Riverside can meet its quota, but it is not one Woodard thinks will go down lightly throughout the community.
He says turning a commercial parcel of land into multifamily and low income housing draws on a city’s general fund.
“Commercial and industrial zones are gains for the city,” he said. “Employees aren’t necessarily using the amenities and city services like a resident would … The trash, most parks or city services and city programs are designed for family residencies not industrial.”
Taylor said he understands community drawback from the idea of rezoning and his team takes into consideration legitimate objections to a site’s potential rezone.
With the deadline staring at them, they have to make a call.
“We have to know where and how many units we’re proposing throughout the city so we can analyze the CEQA … At a certain point we have to start the environmental analysis or else we’re never going to get in on our deadline,” Taylor said.
What is CEQA?
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is California’s broadest environmental protection. It was signed into law in 1970 initially as a way to best conserve the environment before the commencement of new development like housing and infrastructure.
Woodard said CEQA is more constrictive and binding than was originally intended, making it difficult for developers’ projects to move forward.
Brent Lee, vice president of the RUSD school board, real estate broker and co-owner of Windermere Tower Properties, said at least 20 percent of the cost of construction is regulatory hoops developers have to jump through.
“It’s tough to build in California,” he said. “I don’t know how realistic it is for them to build in the current environment. There’s the cost of construction, the cost of materials, labor, regulations, litigation, permit fees, environmental impact fees.”
To wait = headline consequences
In 2017, Taylor said the city did not meet the state-mandated requirement within the given time and they were served a lawsuit.
He said the CEDD waited too long to specify rezoning in their plan and missed their deadline. “We were sued by an advocacy group,” Taylor said. “They saw we were not yet compliant with state orders to provide a plan for affordable housing and we were given a court-ordered deadline in late 2017 to complete the update.”
He added once a city or county’s housing element reads non compliant, they can lose eligibility for state grants and funding resources, like for affordable housing and transportation improvements.
The state could sue, the city could lose their discretion to decide how their housing element is built, there could be monetary penalty.
“It may seem like we’re not looking holistically at the problem, but we are not kicking the can here, we’re making sure we meet our deadline and expectations and we’re taking all precautions to make sure all these things are addressed.”
Taylor said throughout the spring and summer, there will be more opportunities for community input and feedback, which the city will announce in the near future.
Woodard said the way he thinks Riversiders can get involved in the moment, is to communicate with the state.
“If I could get Riversiders to write their state senators and assembly members – As a college town, we need to have our student housing included in the RHNA numbers,” Woodard said.
Riverside’s three universities and one college are not currently considered in the RHNA allocation. Woodard said even Riverside City College plans to have housing for students in the future, but none are included by the state.
On the issue, Taylor said the city can relate with the frustration that Riverside’s higher education housing is not included, but he said the CEDD is not responsible for state policy change, only carrying the policies out.