December 27, 2006-January 3, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Conditioned Response

Last week Nūz reported that the 12-year stand-off between Santa Cruz County and the state of California over housing policy appeared to be near its end.

And sure enough, in the past week the state Department of Housing and Community Development--commonly known as HC--has granted the county conditional certification for its Housing Element, a core segment of its General Plan.

Wanting to hear the state perspective, Nūz contacted HCD and talked with Janet Huston, its director of Communications and Governmental Affairs. What, we asked, did she feel about the apparent breakthrough?

"We're very excited about having this housing element conditionally certified," said Huston, who actually did sound excited.

But why, then, is the approval only conditional? Because the county's housing plan makes a number of commitments, the most central being the promise to rezone a bit over 30 acres at a density that will actually allow housing for lower-income residents to be built, and the state wants to make sure that those rezonings actually occur before signing off on a final certification.

After which, should it all go smoothly, the county will regain its long-lost ability to apply for state affordable housing and certain disaster relief funds--to the tune of $3 million to $4 million a year. Which, needless to say, is worth a lot of housing units and a lot of relief.

Even a conditioned approval, though, leaves Huston upbeat. "We really believe that good planning results in more housing choices. And housing is just as important as the other elements--parks, schools, traffic circulation--that make for quality of life in a community."

Huston also makes clear as to how necessary a wide range of housing is to keeping up that quality---for everyone. "On any given night, we have, statewide, some 360,000 homeless people sleeping outside," she notes. "And some 80,000 to 95,000 of them," she adds, "are children."

Under those circumstances, how could any community resist coming up with an inclusive housing plan? Huston takes a tolerant view: "Well, the process can be very complex and costly," she notes, "especially to a smaller community that lacks the money for, say, statisticians and consultants."

And so, she observes, "it's not uncommon for a community to take an initial look and say to us, 'Well, it looks like we're already all built out."

"But often, working with localities, we can find underbuilt commercial sites that would be good for mixed use, for business with housing above it. And using this, and other kinds of infill approaches, we can help bring people right into commercial areas, to support the businesses so crucial to local communities."

This kind of hands-on help from HCD, which Huston calls "a really concerted effort to provide technical assistance to localities," has upped the local-state cooperation level immensely.

Just five or six years ago, fewer than two-thirds of the state's localities were in compliance with state Housing Element law. Now 77 percent are. And with an additional 13 percent under current review, the vast majority of California's towns, cities and counties now have housing plans which, as state law requires, set aside housing sites for residents of all social classes.

And Huston, HCD and its Housing Policy Development branch are out to make it even easier. "We're developing a Model Housing Element," she notes, one from which "communities can pick and choose, and say, well, not this approach, but this one ... and this one ... and these two ..." and have the potential approaches and language already written and ripe for customizing.

There's still work to do to tackle the state's housing crisis. And while many might attribute that crisis to population growth, the issue is actually more complex. The fact alone that many of California's older housing units have reached the ends of their lives--beach cabins only last so long--means the crisis exists even in areas of California with few new residents.

Among them, "the most underserved, statewide, are people for whom one needs to provide supportive services," notes Huston. "The fact that a community might come up with the funds to help build the housing doesn't mean that it can also afford to provide the services." And so such units typically don't get built, or go to less disadvantaged people.

Yet it does appear from HCD's view that progress is being made. Including in Santa Cruz County, which is, at long last, joining the majority of other localities in the state by beginning to--as Huston phrases it--"provide a full range of housing for all those living there."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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