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The Tyranny of the Regional Housing Numbers Allocation

Rowena Turner

Feb 11, 2022

Every 8 years, the California Department of Housing and Community Development HCD decides how many new homes they believe should be built in all of California over the ensuing 8-year period.

These “allocations” are then handed down to the regional governments – in the Bay Area, it’s ABAG --- to be parsed out to every county, city, and town in the Region. The Bay Area has been tasked with building 441,176 new housing units by 2030. 114,442 very low income units. 65,892 low income units. 72,712 moderate income units, and 188,130 above moderate units. As these numbers, the RHNA numbers, are allocated to counties, cities, and towns, most jurisdictions are being told to build 2 -3 times as many units as in the prior 8-year period

Sometimes these allocations are referred to as “goals”. But, they are not goals; they are mandates. As cities and towns struggle with these mandates, many discover that they are impossible to meet without massive zoning changes that will upend neighborhoods and destroy the uniqueness that has characterized these communities for decades.

How did all this happen?

In 1969, the California legislature passed a bill requiring that cities and towns plan for the housing needs of all residents, regardless of income level. Initially, the State provided information that was useful for planning. But, over time, that “guidance” evolved into “guidelines”. Then, “teeth” were added to enforce the “guidelines”. Today, the RHNA numbers are mandates which may be backed up by penalties for cities that fail to comply.

The RHNA numbers are created by a Sacramento bureaucracy called Housing and Community Development (HCD) in a top-down planning process. This process includes HCD’s expectations for growth as well as allocations designed to meet designated social goals:

  • Increase housing supply to promote affordability and equity

  • Achieve green-house gas reductions

  • Achieve “income balance” – Create more low-income housing in high-income neighborhoods and vice versa

  • Undo past “inequities”

This process has resulted in allocations for many cities that are 2 -3 times the previous 8-year period. A great deal of analysis has been done on HCD’s methodology with allegations that it has double counted, used overstated vacancy rates, and otherwise embellished the numbers. 350 cities have been ordered to zone for 2+ million new homes by 2031. Here in the Bay Area, in SoCal, and in Sacramento, estimates are that the actual housing requirements are overstated by more than 900,000 units.

For all practical purposes, the RHNA numbers are unchallengeable. The law prohibits suits against HCD. If cities want to sue, they must sue their regional governmental body, in the Bay Area, that’s ABAG. But ABAG has no authority to change the top-line number. They can only change the allocation. Catch-22!

Theoretically, there is an appeals process, but that is questionable at best. When ABAG heard appeals, each city was given 5 minutes to present its case. In most cases, slides rejecting the appeals were prepared beforehand and presented immediately. All appeals were denied with the exception of Contra Costa County which was allowed to transfer 35 units to the City of Pittsburg.

Many smaller cities, like Monte Sereno, based their appeals on the fact that they were already built-out, having little, or no vacant land, or having vacant land in high fire danger areas with inadequate roads to evacuate or bring in emergency equipment. These were all denied. The implication is that Cities may have to tear down existing structures. Our Governor has said that high fire danger areas are a problem, but building housing is more important. Many cities pled lack of adequate infrastructure to support the growth that was being forced upon them – lack of water, electricity, natural gas --- lack of capacity in the schools – not enough police and fire support. All these were denied. The command from Sacramento is to BUILD! And the cities must figure out how to provide the infrastructure.

So, how does all this affect small cities? The City of Monte Sereno is tasked with providing for 193 new housing units by 2031 - 53 'very low income', 30 'low income', 31 'moderate income', 79 'above moderate income'. In the previous 8-year cycle, Monte Sereno was told to build 61 new units. The City exceeded their quota. Annexing the La Hacienda property on the outskirts of the City and permitting a 36-unit townhome project on that property partly contributed to meeting the numbers. At that time, many of the residents opposed that development. However, if that property were available today, under current law, the City would be forced to permit a project with 2 – 4 times the housing density.

The City has 1249 parcels in a land area of 1.7 square miles. About 30% of our land is in areas subject to wildfires. The City is entirely residential – no commercial property. There are fewer than 3500 residents with only one elementary school, a City Hall, and a church. The water infrastructure is aging and inadequate. The gas and electric infrastructures are aging and inadequate. The communications infrastructure is aging and inadequate. There are almost no buildable land remaining in the city. How does a city like Monte Sereno accommodate 193 new residential units?

What about larger-sized cities like San Jose? San Jose is tasked with providing for 62,200 new housing units by 2031 - 15,088 very low income, 8,687 low income, 10,711 moderate income, 27,714 above moderate income.

And, medium-sized cities like Cupertino? Cupertino is tasked with providing for 4,588 new housing units by 2031 - 1,193 very low income, 687 low income, 755 moderate income, 1,953 above moderate income. For small, medium, or large cities, the message is the same: "BUILD, BABY, BUILD".

Two bills passed in the last legislative session and signed by the Governor are SB 9 and SB 10. SB 9 would allow 4 – 8 housing units to be built on any lot with as little as 4-foot setbacks, no requirements for parking and no environmental review. Green space would be turned into concrete. SB 10 allows local city councils to approve a building of up to 10 units, of arbitrary height, to be placed on any lot in the city without regard to local zoning ordinances or restrictions. They can even override citizen initiatives to preserve open space.

Why would a city council approve a 10-unit apartment complex in the middle of an established single-family neighborhood? Because the approval process is "ministerial". This means that local control is absent. The RHNA mandates require that they build a huge number of new housing units or be faced with threats of draconian fines.

Suppose an elderly resident has passed away. Her family has sold the property to a developer. The developer comes to the Council with a proposal to tear down the existing home, uproot the mature trees, and build a 10-unit, multi-story, luxury condo project. The Council will come under tremendous pressure to approve this project. It’s legal under SB 10, helps the Council meet its RHNA mandates, and denying this project would likely result in a lawsuit.

The combination of outrageously aggressive RHNA mandates and legislation designed to remove zoning control from local governments work together to destroy neighborhoods and communities that have taken decades to build. This is how the California Legislature has decided to bring neighborhoods of single-family homes to an end in the once-Golden State.

What can be done? Cities and towns throughout the State are joining together to support the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative. This is a citizen-led initiative that, if passed, will, once and for all, validate the long-established principle that local governments control their own zoning. It will undo the damage caused by legislation like SB 9 and 10. By Spring, backers hope to collect over 1.3 million signatures to put this initiative on the November 2022 ballot.

To find out more about this Initiative, go to:

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