Why compliance with housing element is so important

As governor Gavin Newsom amps up the pressure to address the state’s housing crisis, Claremont is working to get its housing element back in sync.

Claremont was one of 47 California cities singled out by Mr. Newsom as being out of compliance with state housing standards. The reason, according to the state, is its housing element—a document that shows the city’s plan to meet its housing needs.  

Claremont has been out of compliance with its housing element since October 2013, according to the state Housing and Community Development department (HCD).

The state says Claremont adopted their housing element late into the planning period, which triggered a penalty requiring them to update their element every four years to show what progress has been made. That update was due in October 2017.

Community Development Director Brad Johnson downplayed Claremont’s non-compliance with state standards, saying it had to do with being late to turn the element in by two months.

“We mailed them our documents in December 2017, and their letter comes back in March saying ‘you’re out of compliance, because your document was due in October 2017,’” he said.

Mr. Johnson told the COURIER this latest iteration would include an extra paragraph about why there is a lag in time between when the city approves a housing project and the date it starts construction. He called it a “very, very minor issue.”

“We plan on sending it out to the state within the next few weeks and hopefully be done by April or May,” he said in late February.

But Claremont has been down a similar road in recent years.


Plans have bounced around

As far back as 2014, the city has been missing state-mandated deadlines to turn in their housing element or turning in versions that have been returned by the state. Since that time, versions of the housing element have bounced from the planning commission, to the city council, to Sacramento and back again.

Part of the housing element is the real housing needs assessment (RHNA), in which every city is given a target number of housing units separated by income level to show they have enough space to build if need be. Claremont, for instance, has to show they have room for moderate-, low- or very low-income housing.

When the housing element was most recently brought up through the commissions and to the council for approval in 2017, the city placed a bulk of those low-income units on the former Claremont golf course to meet housing requirements.

The golf course is currently owned by the Claremont Colleges. City spokesperson Bevin Handel said the high-density overlay over the golf course is what the state wants and is confident the current housing element will comply with state standards.

The kicker is that city officials don’t have to build these units, Mr. Johnson said. They are only required to show the state they have the room. But California is confronting a long-simmering housing crisis, and Governor Newsom has hit the ground running since taking office by playing hardball with cities that are out of compliance.

In a January address, the governor said he would rescind tax dollars from cities that aren’t building housing, according to the Los Angeles Times. He has since delayed those plans.

Ms. Handel said there have been many ideas in the city on how to spur housing development “for a wide spectrum of income levels,” including relaxing restrictions on accessory dwelling units (better known as granny flats or back houses) and offering incentives to convert existing properties into affordable housing.

“We want to make sure our residents can age in place as well as provide housing for new families and singles,” Ms. Handel said in an email.

Mr. Johnson said some proposals put forth from the state include taking local control away from cities.

“That’s where I see the government going,” Mr. Johnson said. “Where they see the road blocks at local levels, their goal is to remove those.”

Claremont has an inclusionary housing requirement that offers an option: 15 percent of units in a new development must be for moderate-income renters or 10 percent must be for low-income renters, Ms. Handel said. The state sets these requirements, in addition to the income levels that qualify. 

“The state is actually concerned if that percentage is too high that it may actually discourage developers from building in a community,” Ms. Handel said.

Claremont’s low-income apartment complexes include Courier Place, Claremont Villas Senior Apartments and Vista Valle Townhomes. Courier Place, located along the south end of the railroad tracks on College Avenue, was built in 2011—the last fully inclusionary housing development built in the city.

The city has also approved tax credits to a developer to remodel the section 8 units at the Claremont Village Apartments on Arrow Highway and dedicated 16 of 30 units at the upcoming Old School House condo development for moderate-income housing, Ms. Handel said.

But there are some in Claremont who think the City of Trees isn’t doing enough to spur housing, especially when it comes to rentals.

Rachel Forester has been a renter in Claremont for 11 years along with her husband, Jorge Ambrocio, and her children—Helena, 10; Juliette, 8; and Osvaldo, 4. A resident of Bonita Terrace apartments, she says the city can do more to give renters a seat at the table.

Since she has become involved in city politics—she also sits on the Community and Human Services Commission—she has noticed that renters are seen as an afterthought because of their assumed transient status.

“I don’t think renters are seen as a full part of the community,” she said.

She doesn’t think Claremont is doing enough to create more housing, but noted it was “a challenge” with the loss of redevelopment funding and a lack of different perspectives in community input—meaning more homeowners offering their perspectives as opposed to renters.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily for a lack of desire to meet those needs, I just think it’s hard,” Ms. Forester said. “But just because things are hard, doesn’t mean you don’t do them, it means you get creative and you work harder.”

She agreed with Mr. Newsom’s approach, saying that after 50 years of underbuilding across California, “We’re not going to get out of it unless we face it, and that’s not going to happen unless we’re kind of bullied into it.”

“And I think pressure goes both ways,” she said. “If we’re being forced from the state, we can push back and say we need redevelopment funding back that was taken away. If we do that, then we can build affordable housing.”

Affordable housing at the golf course, she said, is “something that is never going to happen” and not the beat way the city should meet their affordable housing mandate.

“I think we need to understand where our affordable housing needs to be best; it’s going to be best when it’s near transit, so the Village South Specific Plan needs to include that,” she said.

Karl Hilgert, the former director of the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP), also says that Claremont isn’t doing enough to build affordable housing.  When he left CHAP, he told the COURIER he wrote a letter to the city claiming they weren’t “really committed to a long-range solution” on affordable housing.

In terms of the housing element itself, Mr. Hilgert said too much time was spent looking at different spots to put the RHNA units without the intention to actually build them.

The key, he said, is getting residents near designated sites informed and involved to alleviate concerns about affordable housing. He also envisioned the Claremont golf course as a “50-50” development for low-income students as well as Claremonters.

“Look at creative community engagement and ways to make this housing element a reality instead of a dodge-em idea,” he said.

Village South will also be a part of the picture. Affordable housing developers may ask for density bonuses—an increase in height, the amount of units in a building or floor area to allow for more units to be built—as well as design concessions or parking space requirement reductions, Ms. Handel said.

Ms. Forester noted that part of housing being affordable is placing it next to mass transit, so residents don’t have high transportation costs.

“If you convene near mass transit, then your cost of living goes down,” Ms. Forester said. “That’s why I live so close to the Village and work, so I can walk and we can live with fewer vehicles.”

Ms. Forester, who works as a hairdresser, likes to touch on who renters are in Claremont—including CUSD teachers who want to live in the city, but struggle to find a place to rent. Some, she said, give up and move to other cities.

“I feel like if you work and contribute to this community, you deserve a place in this community,” she said.

—Matthew Bramlett



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