Every eight years, each town, city, and county in California is required to create a plan to meet local housing needs. This plan is known as the Housing Element, and it is one of nine elements of a jurisdiction’s General Plan, as well as the only element that must be approved by the state. The Housing Element determines the shape and characteristics of homes in the city, the availability of affordable housing, and therefore who gets to live in the city and who doesn’t.
With California’s housing crisis at an all time high, the Housing Element is more crucial than ever. It is critical for everyone’s voice and input to be included in this document, and that means there are many opportunities to get involved.
However, there are a lot of elements to the Housing Element, and it can feel difficult to understand what all the jargon means, how the process impacts your community, and what you can do to get involved.
But if you’re reading this, you likely want to learn more about the Housing Element. Below we include details about the process, a list of acronyms, links to additional resources, and recommendations as to how you can get involved.
What is the Housing Element and how does it get approved?
The Housing Element is one of a city’s General Plan Elements. This comprehensive policy document identifies where and how the city plans to accommodate present and future housing needs for people of all income levels. The Housing Element is required by state law to be updated every eight years, and must be approved by the state. The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) reviews every local government’s Housing Element and determines whether it complies with state law. HCD then submits written findings back to each jurisdiction. HCD’s approval is required before a local government can adopt its housing element as part of its overall General Plan.
This is the sixth Housing Element, as the state began requiring all local governments to plan for housing in 1969. This Housing Element plans for the years 2023-2031. At a minimum, the Housing Element must include five sections:
An analysis of housing needs of the city’s population
An inventory of housing sites to accommodate future growth
An analysis of housing constraints that impact housing production
Programs that implement the city's housing policies
Actions that promote and further fair housing opportunities
REGIONAL HOUSING NEEDS ALLOCATION (RHNA)
HCD is responsible for assessing housing needs and allocating responsibilities to build housing in each jurisdiction in the state. HCD has required the Bay Area to plan for 441,176 additional housing units during the 2023-31 period. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) took this number and allocated a certain number of units to each of the nine counties and 101 cities and towns under their purview. Once a jurisdiction has their assigned number of units at various income levels, they can begin to create their Housing Element plan. Below are the RHNA (pronounced “ree-nuh”) allocations for each of the five cities within WVCS’ service area. A full RHNA allocation report from ABAG, including the methodology for determining allocations and the allocations for each jurisdiction in the Bay Area, can be found here.
Cupertino: 4,588 units
Los Gatos: 1,993 units
San Jose: 62,600 units
Saratoga: 1,712 units
Monte Sereno: 193 units
AB 686: AFFIRMATIVELY FURTHERING FAIR HOUSING (AFFH)
Assembly Bill 686 (2018) defines Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing as, “taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics” (reference). Specifically, these actions must aim to accomplish addressing disparities in housing needs and access to opportunities, replacing segregation with true integration, transforming racially/ethnically concentrated areas into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with fair housing laws.
AFFH is important because it has not existed in any of the past Housing Element cycles. The adoption of AFFH has changed the process for cities and shifted what the Housing Element document will look like. It makes the Housing Element process much more rigorous, but also more equitable, inclusive, and effective.
Because of AB 686 (AFFH) and HCD’s stricter approach to reviewing and approving Housing Elements, community engagement is more important than ever for jurisdictions working on their Housing Elements. This means that your voice is highly desired and valued! There are many ways to get involved, from completing online surveys and using tools for providing your input, to attending community meetings and proposing policies and sites for development.
While this is a statewide process, each city has its own approach and timeline for their Housing Element. To engage with a specific Housing Element, simply search “(jurisdiction’s name) Housing Element” and the website to participate in their process should pop up. Below are links to the Housing Element websites for the five jurisdictions WVCS serves. You can also learn more on WVCS’ own Housing Element page here.
Cheat Sheet: Acronyms and Definitions
ABAG/Association of Bay Area Governments - ABAG is responsible for supporting Bay Area cities and counties as they draft their Housing Elements, and determined the RHNA allocations for each of these jurisdictions. ABAG is both a regional planning agency and a local government service provider.
ADU/Accessory Dwelling Unit - ADUs, also commonly referred to as secondary units, granny flats, or cottages, are small secondary small dwelling units located next to or attached to a single-family home. They are an innovative, affordable, effective option for adding much-needed housing to California’s inventory.
AFFH/Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing - Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, also known as Assembly Bill 686, is defined as “taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics.”
AFH/Assessment of Fair Housing - This is a term you will hear less often, and is not to be confused with AFFH. The AFH process was created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 to improve enforcement and implementation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In response, the California legislature passed AB 686, which requires Housing Elements to include an AFH. The AFH must identify patterns and develop solutions to enforcement of Fair Housing laws, segregation, racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, disparities in access to opportunity, and disproportionate housing needs.
AMI/Area Median Income - This is the median, or middle point, of the incomes of every household in a given area. This means that half of the households in the area earn above the AMI and half of the households earn below it. In Santa Clara County, the AMI is $151,300. In the U.S., it is $79,900.
BMR/BMP/Below Market Price or Below Market Rate Housing - A BMR or BMP home or rental is a unit that is priced to be affordable to households that are low to moderate income. The price is usually lower than similar units being sold on the open market. Many cities and towns have their own BMR or BMP program to make it possible for households with lower incomes to live within their jurisdiction.
HCD/The California Department of Housing and Community Development - This department within the California Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency “helps to provide stable, safe homes affordable to veterans, seniors, young families, farm workers, people with disabilities, and individuals and families experiencing homelessness” (reference). HCD is responsible for reviewing and approving all Housing Elements in the state.
HE/Housing Element - While not a formal acronym, you will sometimes see Housing Element abbreviated as “HE.”
HUD/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - HUD is one of the executive departments of the U.S. federal government. This department administers federal housing and urban development laws. HUD is sometimes confused with HCD. You can essentially think of HUD as the federal version of HCD.
RHNA (pronounced ree-nuh)/ Regional Housing Needs Allocation - In 1969, the state mandated that all California jurisdictions must plan for the housing needs of residents at all income levels. HCD determines the number of homes a region needs to build, and how affordable these units need to be, in order to meet these needs. The department then allocates these unit development requirements to each region, and each Housing Element must plan for these units.
SB 9/Senate Bill 9 - This is perhaps the most well-known bill to pass in California in the last legislative cycle. SB9, also known as the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act, is a state bill that streamlines the process for a homeowner or property owner to create a duplex, or subdivide an existing lot. SB9 allows homeowners in most areas to divide their property into two lots, increasing opportunities for homeownership in their neighborhood. Additionally, the bill allows two homes to be built on each of these lots. The bill allows any property owner to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) through a “ministerial” process, meaning that if the project meets a certain set of predetermined requirements, the owner is issued a permit without going through a body such as the Planning Commission.
SB 10/Senate Bill 10 - This bill makes it easier for cities to zone for smaller, lower-cost housing developments of up to 10 units to address California’s housing crisis. However, unlike SB 9, this is an opt-in bill. This means that jurisdictions are not required to adhere to these guidelines, but instead may adopt them if they choose to do so.