Before Senate Bill 375, the basic premise of California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) was that each city in a region would be expected to absorb its “fair share” of the region’s projected housing need at all income levels. Each city would theoretically undertake a planning process to ensure that it could accommodate its assigned number of units. This process was sometimes implemented by cities and other times was ignored, although Pleasanton’s defeat in a lawsuit challenging the city’s housing cap served as a wake-up call for cities that may have been shirking their responsibilities to plan for future housing need. The principal goal was to ensure that each region accounted for its total housing need at different income levels, and fair share RHNA numbers were distributed to local jurisdictions throughout each region to reach that total.
It is the intent of the Legislature that housing planning be coordinated and integrated with the regional transportation plan. To achieve this goal, the allocation plan shall allocate housing units within the region consistent with the development pattern included in the sustainable communities strategy.
The final allocation plan shall ensure that the total regional housing need, by income category … is maintained, and that each jurisdiction in the region receive an allocation of units for low- and very low income households.
The resolution approving the final housing need allocation plan shall demonstrate that the plan is consistent with the sustainable communities strategy in the regional transportation plan.
(Government Code, §§ 65584.04(i)(1), 65584.04(i)(2), 65584.04(i)(3).)
SB 375 leaves open the question of exactly how the two ought to be blended. But if you acknowledge that growth should be targeted in transit-oriented locations rather than simply allowed to sprout at random, then it is almost a direct corollary that an “unfair share” distribution of housing will result. Perhaps because it is still early in the process, ABAG and MTC thus far have not emphasized the fair share distinction. It was not surprising, then, to find some initial pushback in a report prepared by Berkeley city staff. This piece in the Berkeley Patch, written by Livable Berkeley, summarizes the conclusions of the staff report as follows:
City staff’s “educated guess” is that the level of growth posited in the scenario exceeds what can be feasibly accommodated in Berkeley. Staff is also concerned that other communities are not being asked to do as much as Berkeley.
Staff’s remarks were offered in response to the Initial Vision Scenario, which included a preliminary estimate of the new housing Berkeley should plan to accommodate: 15,730 additional units under ABAG’s aggressive growth projections, concentrated in the downtown and along more robust transit corridors like San Pablo, University, and Telegraph Avenues. Interestingly, even though staff offers its “educated guess” that this level of growth cannot be feasibly accommodated, the report admits that “staff has not generally quantified the capacity of these areas to accommodate new units” and that “staff has not begun to test the feasibility of the numbers generated for the [Initial Vision Scenario].” (PDF of staff report)
In short, Berkeley city staff has offered an “educated guess” that is ostensibly based on little education. Which would make it … just a plain old guess? The report proposes that the guess is based on the City’s Housing Element work, but that is an iterative process, and it does not terminate just because a city claims it has no more space after completing the last iteration.
The staff report illustrates the tension between SB 375 and fair share. Hypothetically, if all cities were served by transit equally well, it would be reasonable to expect each city to absorb its fair share of housing need in the traditional sense. In reality, though, transit service is not provided uniformly throughout the region, and a principal objective of the SCS is to bring transit networks and housing distributions into alignment. This means that a city like Berkeley — which is home to the University, a major trip generator, and is served by three BART stations, the Capitol Corridor, and major bus transit corridors — is a natural place for growth. Clayton (to pick one example), which was assigned just 124 new households, is not.
That disparity may seem “unfair” to some, but the Initial Vision Scenario arguably does not go far enough. If one goal of the SCS is to increase the share of the Bay Area’s population living in places that resemble Berkeley, the Initial Vision Scenario does not accomplish that goal with respect to Berkeley itself — because the growth it describes in Berkeley closely mirrors the regional trend and is actually slower than Alameda County as a whole. Indeed, in 2010, 1.728 percent of Bay Area households called Berkeley home; in 2035, if the Initial Vision Scenario’s allocation were to become reality, that share would barely increase to 1.732 percent. In contrast, the allocations for other East Bay cities like Oakland, Emeryville, Fremont, Livermore, Dublin, and Pleasanton pick up the slack with growth that outpaces both Alameda County and the region as a whole. Notably, the Initial Vision Scenario does not take into account unmet demand for more housing in walkable, centrally-located neighborhoods like those in Berkeley.
To the extent there is a break from fair share as it has traditionally been implemented, the concerns of the Berkeley staff report will resonate with other cities in California, and it will be interesting to see how fair share is ultimately folded into the SB 375 framework.