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"SO YOU'RE NOT a regulatory agency."
I'm sitting in a sparsely furnished office at the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and I'm stunned.
Senior regional planner Hing Wong sits across a table from me, which is covered in colorful printouts full of numbers. He's been explaining how a critical step in the housing element process works. Every seven years, the regional planning agency receives a number from HCD, reflecting how much the region is projected to grow in the coming years.
In the past, it has broken that number up for the various cities and unincorporated county governments in the bay area, based on projected household growth and census figures. That figure becomes known as the RHNA (regional housing needs assessment) number, and is given to each municipality to outline exactly how many units of above-moderate, moderate, low and very low income housing it should zone for, theoretically helping to match jobs and population growth with ample opportunities for apartments and homes to be built.
At Novato's heated public meetings, where I started covering issues related to housing law in early 2011, ABAG was often portrayed by those opposed to affordable housing as the long arm of Sacramento, forcing development policies on a town that didn't want them. The term "social engineering" came up a lot.
Arguments about town character were often coupled at the podium with allegations about the crime, graffiti, underperforming students and property-value plummets that would come with the low-income population the city was zoning for, which one community member described to me in an email simply as "immigrants." Meanwhile, affordable-housing advocates more generally saw ABAG as the good guys, using numbers and formulas to combat wealthy Marin NIMBY-ism and right a situation in which 60 percent of the county's workforce was forced to commute in.
But as Wong shows me the new system, I see that it's neither. The RHNA for 2014–2022 is based less on some kind of fixed, omniscient data set about future growth and is more open to influence, part of what the planner refers to as a "living thing." Over the course of meetings lasting roughly a year, dues-paying ABAG members—elected officials, planners and advocates from all over the bay—crafted a new formula to get those zoning numbers, and it's one in which choice plays a much bigger part.
For example, communities that decide they want a lot of growth can label themselves "priority development areas," or PDAs, zone for more housing and be rewarded with transportation grants and other incentives. But areas that don't want that don't have to, even if their projected job growth is substantial. It's a system that advocates for affordable housing have called arbitrary, because areas where low-income housing isn't welcome are allowed to stay that way.
That's an oversimplification, according to Wong.
"Most people in the methodology committee try to make it as low as possible for their jurisdiction," he says. "But they understand the whole ramification, that RHNA needs to be shared. And stakeholders like housing advocates push back."
Bits of the formula are set in place to check NIMBY zoning policies—there's a provision for jobs and another one to add more low-income housing to excessively wealthy areas that have a shortage of it.
But toward the end of our conversation, I ask about Novato, citing the violent opposition to low-income housing that I witnessed there, despite Marin's extremely high in-commuting rate.
"Novato has a third of the number they did last time," Wong says. "They have a councilmember who wanted very low numbers."
THE PRESIDENT OF ABAG's board is Napa County supervisor Mark Luce. When I speak to him on the phone, he describes this new system as more "bottom up," and thinks it will improve a broken process, in which, he says, costly and painful zoning battles at the city level don't actually lead to housing.
But Luce isn't just critical of a system in which potentially empty zoning decisions can be made—as in 2011, when Novato's city council chose sites to zone for low-income housing that had operating businesses on them. Although he presides over the board of ABAG, Luce is no fan of zoning as a regulatory measure at all—despite its central place in housing element law.
"It's not good for anyone when you enforce zoning when nobody wants it," he says.
Historically, the county supervisor has been a strong supporter of Napa's agricultural preserve, a collection of properties on the valley floor that have been designated for agricultural and open-space use. Many of these landowners receive tax relief in exchange for the designation, per the 1968 Williamson Act, and Luce's 2012 campaign donations show some of the same names as a list of those property owners who are part of the Land Trust of Napa County.
Luce's position of protecting open space against development has precedent in the same set of laws that mandate regulatory housing zones, specifying that, as much as possible, they should be placed in cities, near grocery stores and bus lines. He's also been in line with the spirit of the law, helping to craft a workforce-housing program for low-income families to buy homes, though this program is targeted at incomes well above those of the county's many farmworkers.
But in this latest election cycle, Luce, like other local officials that Wong spoke of, campaigned on a promise to use his position in the planning agency to limit housing.
"Don't be fooled," a slogan on his campaign website reads. "Only one candidate is working to reduce the amount of housing the state requires of us and ensure slow growth in Napa County."
A sentence further down on the same page reads: "In my role as President of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which will continue if I am reelected, I am in a position to better protect our county's interests."
In November, he was reelected to the second district with 52 percent of the vote.
Last summer, I interviewed the supervisor about his position on the controversial Napa Pipe development, a proposed market-rate site along the Napa River with some low-income units included. Instead of advocating the 945-unit zoning recommended by Napa's planning commission, he favored a much lower zoning of 350 for the site, which—much like Roseland in Santa Rosa—is an island of unincorporated county land surrounded by city. The figure, he told me, would fulfill the letter of housing element law.
However, he admitted that that number was too low to actually interest a developer and result in any housing being built.