Housing Element FAQ

Why does my city need more housing?

Over the past few decades, California has failed to build enough homes to meet its people’s needs. New homebuilding is a fraction of what it was during the 1960s through 1980s, largely because local obstructionism blocked new housing production. As a result, experts believe that California has a housing shortage of over 3.5 million homes.

In Los Angeles, 87% of the city’s housing stock is over 30 years old, and in most of the city’s neighborhoods, almost no new housing has been built over the past decade. This has caused fast-rising rents and home prices, greater financial pressure on families, longer commutes, increasing carbon emissions, more displacement of historically disadvantaged communities, high homelessness, reduced access to economic and educational opportunity, and increased racial and economic segregation.

The solution to California’s housing crisis is more homes, especially in thriving urban cores with good access to jobs, transit, and public resources. More housing means lower housing costs, greater access to good jobs and schools, less car dependence, more racially integrated neighborhoods, and a stronger economy. You can read more about how we should encourage more housing in Abundant Housing LA’s Policy Agenda.

How was my city’s RHNA target determined? Is my city planning for the needs of future residents, or existing ones?

State law requires that cities’ RHNA targets be determined based on the existing and future housing needs of the region. So factors like the share of households living in overcrowded conditions, and the share of households that are rent-burdened influence the RHNA target, since both of those indicators are related to overall housing scarcity.

In Southern California, the elected officials approved a plan that set historically high RHNA targets for cities with good access to transit and job centers. Abundant Housing LA’s advocacy helped organize support for this approach to determining RHNA targets. Originally, the elected officials had planned to cave to pressure from housing opponents, and set high RHNA targets for exurban cities that are far from jobs and transit. Fortunately, the region’s leaders voted to promote strong housing growth in the high-opportunity coastal cities that have underbuilt housing for decades.

How can my city encourage affordable housing development through the housing element? It’s one thing to identify sites where affordable housing could be built, but another thing to actually build it.

Housing elements should plan for affordable housing growth, which requires zoning reform. Apartments are banned on 75% of LA’s residentially-zoned land, which greatly limits opportunities for affordable housing production. Cities must legalize apartments, especially in high-opportunity neighborhoods, and introduce density bonus programs (which allow taller apartment buildings in return for setting aside some units for lower-income households). Density bonus programs, like Transit-Oriented Communities in Los Angeles, directly create affordable homes as part of mixed-income developments built by the private sector.

Of course, cities must also increase funding for affordable housing production. They can generate local funds by taxing property fairly; a small tax on property sales in the City of Los Angeles could raise over $1 billion annually. Local governments should also donate parking lots and other public land to affordable housing nonprofits and community land trusts, which will reduce the cost of producing affordable housing. Making these resources available to nonprofit affordable housing developers will allow them to build more affordable homes, more quickly.

Finally, cities should implement reforms that make affordable housing less expensive to build. Earlier this year, the Terner Center found that the cost per square foot of building affordable housing in California had risen 30% between 2016 and 2019, and that average development costs were the highest in the nation. Faster permitting, simpler financing structures, elimination of on-site parking requirements, and elimination of local development fees would all reduce the cost (and speed up the construction) of affordable housing development. The housing element presents a great opportunity for cities to take these actions.

My city has a long history of segregation and exclusion, and I want my city to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds. How do housing elements promote fair housing opportunities for communities of color?

The housing shortage is rooted in a long history of racist practices. Federal, state, and local governments used housing policy to exclude people of color, and similar policies continue to the present day in the form of modern exclusionary housing policies, like apartment bans. Systemic racism, both the legacy of explicitly racist policies and an ongoing system of implicitly racist ones, hurts people of color and makes our communities more segregated

Housing elements are required to plan for inclusion by affirmatively further fair housingUnder state law, cities can’t perpetuate historic patterns of racial segregation when planning for future housing. Instead, housing elements have to actively encourage more integrated, inclusive communities, and plan for affordable housing growth in high-opportunity neighborhoods.

Housing elements should do this by rezoning transit-rich, job-rich, and high-income neighborhoods, including single-family zoned areas. This will expand affordable housing opportunities in areas that have historically blocked housing growth. Cities should also finance more affordable housing production through local funding programs, and speed up approvals and permitting of affordable housing, so local opponents can’t block new housing opportunities. These steps will make our neighborhoods and cities more diverse in every way, and ensure that Americans of all races and backgrounds are welcome everywhere in California.

How can housing elements encourage transit usage and lower carbon emissions?

It’s hard to get people to use mass transit if we don’t make it easy for people to live near it. Cities’ housing elements should encourage strong housing growth in neighborhoods with good transit access, like the Abundant Housing FAIR Plan calls for. For example, the Westside of Los Angeles has excellent access to rail, thanks to the Expo Line and future Purple Line expansion, but relatively few people can benefit because apartments are banned near many of the stations. Housing elements should rezone areas near transit to encourage more housing, which will make transit usage more convenient and help our cities reduce carbon emissions from driving.

Now that more people are working from home, some cities will have less need for office space in the future. How can housing elements encourage redevelopment of commercial properties into housing?

Building more housing in commercial districts is a great way to create more homes near job centers, while also making commutes shorter. In the housing element, cities are allowed to count commercially zoned sites as locations where they expect residential or mixed-use redevelopment, as long as they can demonstrate that the site is likely to be redeveloped over the next 8 years. Local governments must use data on development trends in their city to make a fair estimate of how likely a commercially zoned site is to be redeveloped into housing.

Unfortunately, many cities in California don’t allow housing to be built in commercial zones, including cities with vibrant downtowns like Santa Monica. State legislators have proposed Senate Bill 6 and Assembly Bill 115, which would legalize new housing in commercial zones. Of course, cities can legalize new housing in commercial zones on their own, and can also make housing easier to build in these zones (for example, by rezoning to allow taller buildings, and by approving permits by-right).

What are the consequences and penalties if my city does not meet its RHNA targets?

Cities in Southern California are required to submit housing element updates that comply with state law to HCD (the State Department of Housing and Community Development) by October 15, 2021. Cities that refuse to comply with state law may lose access to state funding for housing and planning, and also run the risk of being sued by the state Attorney General. The state sued the city of Huntington Beach in 2019 for their refusal to adopt a housing element that complied with state law. 

If homebuilding in a city falls behind its RHNA targets, then a state law that streamlines housing production, Senate Bill 35, would take effect in that city. Under SB 35, if a proposed residential project includes affordable units for lower-income households, and is located outside of an ecologically sensitive area, then a city government must approve the project within 60-90 days. This ensures that local housing opponents can’t tie up a project in court for years, and allows the city to catch up on its RHNA goals.