Fair share housing “burdens” and putting teeth in RHNA

Brilliant friend Matt Palm (who just won an Early Career Paper award for being brilliant for this nice article in JAPA is always trying to get me to see the potential value of Regional Housing Needs Assessments and/or using those as a means to get cities actually moving on approving more housing unit developments. I’ve assumed Matt was right, and I haven’t really thought about it until I got to reading Scott Weiner’s SB 828. Some combination here might be a nice workaround for the “loss of local control” concerns raised during the SB827. The idea is something like this:

  • If you approve housing commensurate with your estimated RHNA needs, then fine, you retain local control. The state generally stays out of your business.
  • If you don’t start approving housing to match what you identified in your RHNA, then the state steps in to upzone and you lose local control.

This way you retain local control up to a limit–that limit being the ability to exclude. Except for excluding other people, there’s all sorts of local control possibilities. The state doesn’t tell you where or how to up zone; it just enforces a unit quote based on growth needs. If cities behave prudentially, they retain the ability to decide where that growth goes. If they don’t, they lose that ability, at least for a bit.

This seems to be the direction that Weiner has been trying to go with SB 828, which includes the provision in the housing general plan element that cities must identify locations where new housing units can go and steps the city can take to move forward with those projects.

Putting some teeth in RHNA enforcement strikes me as a nice idea, except for how much reliance general plans have local voluntary compliance and the ways people can subvert them. As it is, cities seem to just go “aw, shucksy darnsy, we didn’t meet our goals”, as this story from the Bay Area Beacon suggests. Putting some teeth in the RHNA process could change the environment quite a bit for cities. (If you don’t meet your RHNA, you don’t get state $$ for…anything. MUHAHAHAHAHHAA.). (I recently got accused of trolling with this blog. There you go.)

My colleague Dowell Myers has suggested that cities will likely face “fair share” backlash from neighborhoods, and I think he is probably right. Fair share covers the idea that you have this need for local development, and the city allocates the overall need to various neighborhoods based on some allocation practice that attempts to spread the responsibility for new housing around.

Matt Palm and Deb Niemeier discuss in the paper cited above why “fair share” may not really be the best way to be allocating new housing. Plunking down apartments of low-income people in Malibu might serve a general idea of making Malibu take its lumps with everybody else, but except for school quality and beach amenities, it’s not really a great place to people. It’s not well served by transit, and it’s not particularly job-rich. It’s a better idea to put people near services they need even if the practice does allow wealthy enclaves to skirt their social responsibilities.

The other reason I’ve never liked “fair share” is simply that it suggests that housing is a burden–that new people are a burden–and I don’t think that is a healthy or just way to think about human beings whose only known fault is that they haven’t arrived in a location yet.