City plans to update housing element 

A map in the city's updated housing element indicates new areas where affordable housing could go in Santa Clarita.

Santa Clarita is expected to update its housing plan Tuesday, an annual update that resulted in a monthslong back-and-forth between city staff and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development due to recent changes in state law.  

City officials say they have a history of approving balanced developments that understand the community’s needs; advocates say the housing rules are necessary because the state is constantly falling behind on its need to ensure enough affordable homes exist.  

One of the most recent changes to the city’s zoning creates several new areas where, if a developer wanted to, they could build a multifamily project without any city approval necessary as long as at least 20% of the housing on-site is considered affordable, meaning it’s for people making less than 80% of average median income.  

Essentially, until the end of the current housing-element cycle, the city has to show it has the capacity to approve up to a certain number of homes in different categories, ranging from very-low-income housing to market-rate housing, according to city officials.  

“It’s another example of how the state keeps taking away local control,” said Jason Crawford, director of community development for the city of Santa Clarita. “Santa Clarita has a history of being able to approve projects that are a good balance of new residential, office, retail and restaurants, but the state is trying to take it out of the city’s hands on whether they are allowed to approve residential projects or not, and make it a requirement.” 

State law already allows for the changes, but the purpose of the proposed City Council action is to codify the updates, he added. 

The new areas affected include: Westfield Valencia Town Center mall; the former Kmart center; the former Saugus Speedway; the Soledad Corridor Plan — at Crossglade Avenue — and the Soledad Corridor Plan, south of Solamint Road; the Lyons Corridor Plan, including the Valencia Plaza shopping center; the Lyons Corridor Plan, including the Smart & Final shopping center. 

The city is not required to approve permits for all of the homes in the various categories by the end of the current cycle in 2029 — in fact, it can’t control the projects’ pace, Crawford said. 

But in order to be in compliance with state law, the city must show that it could approve what the state considers its allocation for each category in its Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, for that timespan. 

“For the Housing Element, the 10,031 total housing allocation target is the number of housing units, inclusive of the different affordability categories, that the city has to show there is zoned capacity throughout to be entitled,” he stated in a recent email. 

“As part of that, the state requires that cities show they have the zoning capacity to accommodate a specific number of new houses across a set of affordability categories. The state also tells the cities what that number of new houses they have to plan for is.”  

The latest wrinkle is that the city has to put the developments in areas in the city where they will “affirmatively further fair housing,” according to a letter from Paul McDougall, senior program manager for the HCD’s Division of Housing Policy Development, which refers to “areas of high opportunity and high income, areas of concentrated need.” 

A chart from the city indicates Santa Clarita’s allocation in the state’s RHNA, with the approved and planned number directly after it in parentheses: very low-income, which is designated for people making 30% to 50% of the average median income, 3,397 units, (29); low-income, for households with 50% to 80% of the AMI, 1,734 (155); moderate income 1,672 (0); Above moderate 3,228 (8,358). 

Crawford also said Santa Clarita officials don’t control when a developer will propose a project, how many units it will propose or when the project will be built once it is approved. 

The topic was discussed at City Hall recently during a meeting of the council’s Development Committee, which was held to allow a city planner to update the committee’s members, Mayor Jason Gibbs and Councilwoman Laurene Weste, on the status of a 128-unit affordable housing project at Sierra Highway and Flying Tiger Drive. 

The city has no way to review such a project, said Dave Peterson, senior planner for the city, adding it would be illegal for the city to make such a project subject to its Planning Commission review process.  

“The sites (city’s) inventory must comply with Assembly Bill 1397,” according to the city staff report for consideration of the housing element update, “which amended the state housing element law and placed stricter requirements on local jurisdictions when identifying adequate and available sites to meet their RHNA allocations.” 

City staff wrote in the report that the amendment “resulted in added scrutiny and more eligibility requirements for identifying housing sites, including new requirements for streamlining the permitting of projects on sites included in previous Housing Elements that are reused in the updated sites inventory.” 

The changes also mean if a project comes into one of the areas identified with the plan that will add housing, the city must not only comply, but also it must expedite the process for said development. 

The state noted several suggestions for the city, including that Santa Clarita should “develop a plan that incentivizes and promotes the creation of accessory dwelling units that can be offered at affordable rent, as defined in Section 50053 of the Health and Safety Code, for very low, low-, or moderate-income households.”  

There hasn’t been much discussion to date from the dais on city policies regarding accessory dwelling units, which are also known as “granny flats.” 

Despite the laws and recent changes, housing advocates say Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent budget doesn’t go far enough to address the crisis on a statewide level. 

“California is falling further and further behind on housing affordability and homelessness every day,” according to a statement from Sumeet Bal, director of communications for Public Advocates, which advocated for AB 1397, in response to the governor’s budget. “Just as the governor has made historic investments in education, the state needs to do the same for housing and mobility. All of these issues are essential to our collective well-being. Unfortunately, the governor’s May Revise takes an austerity approach to housing which will only deepen the crisis for California’s people and economy.” 

One of the incentives for complying with the state’s allocation is eligibility for state and federal funding grants, according to a letter from the state’s senior program manager for the Department of Housing and Community Development’s Division of Housing Policy Development. 

“Several federal, state and regional funding programs consider housing element compliance as an eligibility or ranking criteria,” writes McDougall. “For example, the Caltrans Senate Bill (SB) 1 Sustainable Communities grant; the Strategic Growth Council and HCD’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities programs; and HCD’s Permanent Local Housing Allocation consider housing element compliance …. With a compliant housing element, the city will meet housing element requirements for these and other funding sources.” 

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