Despite widespread recognition that the Bay Area desperately needs more housing, more than two dozen cities and Santa Clara County are appealing their assignments for the next eight-year cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, arguing that the allotments pose insurmountable problems.
Each of the 27 jurisdictions that have filed an appeal is unhappy in its own way and each is hoping that an Association of Bay Area Governments appeals committee, which consists of local elected officials, will consider its case and reduce its allocation this fall, before it adopts the final RHNA Plan in October or November.
The 27 appellants face stiff odds, given that they are opposing not just ABAG's methodology, but one another. ABAG is required to assign 441,176 units throughout the nine Bay Area counties and the process is, by its very nature, a zero-sum game: For any jurisdiction that gets a reduction, one or more would see a corresponding increase.
Much like the number of projected housing units, the number of appeals is considerably higher in the current cycle than it was in 2014, when regional planners and local officials last went through this exercise. At that time, the region was assigned 187,990 units by the state Department of Housing and Community Development for the period between 2015 and 2023. Palo Alto and Mountain View were among eight jurisdictions that appealed the allocations at that time. Both saw their appeals rejected.
Despite the relatively low probability of success, Palo Alto is once again appealing its allocation. Citing its famously high jobs-to-housing ratio of more than 3-to-1, the city argues in its appeal that it is being penalized by ABAG for its recent efforts to curb job growth, a trend for which city leaders believe it should be rewarded with a smaller allocation. After being assigned more than 6,086 dwellings for the period between 2023 and 2031, the city is requesting that for this reason, as well as several others, its allocation should be reduced by 1,500 units, to 4,586.
Pleasant Hill, by contrast, is arguing that its assigned allocation would hinder economic growth by forcing it to designate commercial lands for residential use, limiting its ability to create jobs. The city is asking that its allocation be reduced from 1,803 to 784 housing units.
Saratoga, which was assigned 1,712 units, similarly argues in its letter that the housing allocation will force it "to consider reducing the limited commercial job producing development that it has." In requesting a 50% reduction, to 856 units, the city's letter also posits that the allocation will effectively force Saratoga to build housing in areas that are vulnerable to wildfires, for lack of more suitable options.
Requiring the higher number, the letter from Saratoga Mayor Yan Zhao states, would necessarily entail construction in the city's Wild Urban Interface area, which contains much of the city's existing housing stock and which "cannot sustain increased housing density."
"Conversely, planning for the addition of more than 1,700 new homes in other sections of Saratoga that are outside the Wildland Urban Interface is simply impractical and unrealistic given the financial realities of residential construction," Zhao wrote.
Los Altos Hills' letter also cites fire risks in arguing for a 129-unit reduction to its allocation of 489 units. The entire west end of the town abuts a regional open space and most of the town is located within a "high fire hazard severity zone," the letter notes. But for all the open space, the town is "basically built-out" and its allocation of 489 housing units is neither feasible nor justified, the letter argues. The Los Altos Hills letter points to the town's "narrow roadways and limited escape routes" and argues that a proposal to increase density in its community "is ill-conceived and does not represent good planning practice."
Santa Clara County, which was assigned 3,125 units, is one of four counties that are appealing the allocation (along with Contra Costa, Marin and Sonoma). The county's letter characterized the regional call for more housing in its jurisdiction of unincorporated areas as poor planning, insomuch as it would encourage development in rural areas and open spaces. The proposed allocation, the county letter notes, is more than 1000% greater than in the current RHNA cycle, during which it was assigned 277 units.
"This exponential increase is disproportionate to the overall regional allocation. The allocation ignores several ground realities and material limitations, coupled with longstanding County General Plan policies that focus growth within urban areas to combat sprawl and preserve farmlands within unincorporated areas."
Contra Costa County, which was assigned 7,645 units, similarly argued that unincorporated areas face significant constraints when it comes to housing construction because they lack basic services like grocery stores and banks.
Palo Alto's city planners warned in June that the appeal faces long odds. Regional bodies have been loath in recent years to grant appeals. Of the 14 Bay Area jurisdictions that requested reductions to their allocations in the current cycle (including the eight that filed formal appeals), only three — Hayward, Lafayette and Sunnyvale — saw their numbers adjusted.
City planner Tim Wong, who is managing Palo Alto's Housing Element process, noted at a May meeting that in the Southern California region, 52 agencies had filed appeal. Two of them were able to "partially succeed," he said.
While Palo Alto's elected leaders have long been critical of state and regional housing mandates, the city's letter is more technical than ideological. It lists specific sites for which the regional agency had — erroneously, in the city's view — proposed housing growth. These include sites that are owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District rather than the city, as well areas to which the regional mapping model assigned unrealistic density (the outlier among these is the Opportunity center at 33 Encina Ave., which has a projected density of 1,625 units per acre).
Palo Alto's letter also argues that ABAG unfairly penalizes the city for instituting a cap on office developments, a move intended to reduce the demand for housing by reducing job growth. But the city's move is now being used by the regional agency to justify increasing the housing allocation under the dubious assumption that because developers can't build offices, they will now build housing, according to the city.
"This reasoning represents a false dichotomy," the letter from Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois argues. "There is not a one to one ratio of office to housing development and the inability to construct new office space does not mean a property owner will necessarily build housing."
The city's top concern, DuBois told this news organization in an interview, is the pace of construction that the allocation would require. More than half of the housing that the city is projected to need under the regional vision document, Plan 2050, would be "front-loaded in the next eight years" if the city were to meet its allocated housing total for the coming cycle, he said. From the pace of construction standpoint, this would be impractical, he said.
"There are specific reasons for our appeal," DuBois said. "It's not general grumbling and complaining, which is sometimes how it's painted. There are very specific issues with specific numbers. It's not just making stuff up and being frivolous. It's looking at how ABAG looked at the Palo Alto situation and how they assigned us numbers and where it makes sense."
ABAG is scheduled to hold public hearings on all of the appeals in September before making its determinations later in the fall. The agency's Executive Committee is scheduled to adopt the Final RHNA Plan in November or December. ABAG underscores on its website that it is required by Housing Element Law to allocate all of the 441,176 units assigned to the Bay Area by HCD.
"If the appeal of a jurisdiction's draft RHNA allocation is successful, ABAG must redistribute the units to other local governments in the region," the agency states on its webpage.