You may have heard that Los Altos is required to build approximately 2,000 new homes in the next 10 years. You may have been hearing about the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. What the heck is all this? It sounds like a lot.
Let’s start with the housing element. Every eight years, each city in California is required to make a housing element, the part of a city’s general plan that deals with housing. In the housing element, we have to, among other things, say where new housing can be built. It is now time for Los Altos to make its new housing element for 2023-2030. We have to make a housing element, or face severe consequences.
The first reaction a lot of Los Altans have is, “We should say we’re not going to build any new housing.” But we can’t do that. Every time a housing element cycle occurs, the state tells regions how many new housing units (that is, homes for people) they have to plan for in the next eight years, and the regions tell each city how many homes it has to plan for. Because we’re in a housing crisis this cycle, the California State Legislature has introduced new laws, and the numbers are dramatically higher than in past cycles. These numbers are the RHNA. For 2023-2030, the agreed-upon method assigned 1,958 homes to Los Altos.
That part is done. Now the city needs to figure out how to plan for 1,958 new homes over eight years. Nearly half of these have to be market-rate homes, and the rest must be affordable for moderate-income residents (up to $169,900/year for a family of four) or low-income residents (up to $112,150/year for a family of four).
It’s important to note that the city of Los Altos is not required, itself, to build any buildings. We’re required to set the table for housing, to provide places for housing to be built and get rid of impediments to home building. Nobody is going to force any property owner to build anything.
Accessory dwelling units are one way we’ll chip away at our RHNA. Under the recently liberalized housing laws, Los Altans are building many more ADUs (backyard cottages or in-law units), each of which counts as one home toward our RHNA.
For the rest of our required low-income housing, we’ll have to zone for some higher-density low-income homes. According to Jon Biggs, Los Altos’ community development director, the city expects to plan for this higher-density low-income housing along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. We can use a zoning overlay, so builders are allowed additional density only for all-affordable buildings, making the lots more attractive to affordable-housing developers.
And then we’ll have to figure out how to zone for the rest of the market-rate and moderate-income homes. We have a lot of choices. Some can go downtown, where we’re already seeing new housing; maybe some in Loyola Corners; maybe some down south near the Lucky supermarket.
Individual citizens will have many avenues to be involved in these choices, including public forums, workshops and other ways to make our voices heard.
We shouldn’t underestimate the consequences of attempting to evade our legal responsibilities. If we don’t get a housing element approved by the state, then the state can and will impose draconian punishments. The city can be sued by the state’s attorney general, or outside groups, potentially eliminating Los Altos’ ability to issue building permits and make land-use decisions. Any city without a housing element also loses access to state housing and transportation funds. These consequences would be catastrophic for our city.
We have the opportunity to work together as a community, move forward with our legal responsibilities and ensure Los Altos is an affordable and beautiful city for generations to come.
Anne Paulson is a member of the Los Altos Affordable Housing Alliance.