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May 2010 | Volume 9 Issue 3   


"The Old Line State" Works to Assist Many New Families
California Links Environmental Concerns with Affordable Housing and Transportation
Impact Fee Cuts Increase Housing Affordability

California Links Environmental Concerns with Affordable Housing and Transportation

The state of California is addressing environmental concerns by linking air quality goals with land use, transportation, and affordable housing policy. Intended to tackle vehicle emissions, the single greatest cause of greenhouse gases in the state, Senate Bill 375 promotes compact, sustainable development, improved access to public transportation, and reduced vehicle miles traveled. Passed into law in 2008, the bill requires each regional planning agency in the state to develop a sustainable communities strategy, strengthens housing needs allocation, and streamlines environmental review processes for mixed-use, transit oriented projects. This article explains how the new legislation links sustainability goals and environmentally-friendly strategies to coordinated housing and transportation planning.

California’s state capitol building in Sacramento.Sustainable Communities Strategies

The affordable housing provision of the state law falls under the umbrella of Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) — an initiative established to meet the state energy targets for reducing green house gas emissions, and planning for the region's housing and transportation needs while preserving valuable land resources. These once disjointed regional planning processes must now be aligned to ensure that public transportation is accessible to quality affordable housing, employment opportunities, and an array of public services. The SCS requires regions to provide housing at all income levels that is close to public transit. Each region must determine community housing needs and develop plans in accordance with environmental standards. This review assessment is called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) and is mandated by California's Housing Element Law.

Regional Housing Needs Allocation

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) tool assesses an area's "fair share" of projected housing needs based on four income categories of housing affordability. The needs assessment identifies existing land (either vacant lots or sites) with the potential for redevelopment that accommodates affordable housing needs for low- and very-low income households. If there is inadequate land for these purposes, the region must rezone sites for transit oriented development projects. Affordable housing developers pay close attention to the RHNA assessment when deciding on where to build. With the enforcement of mandatory rezoning, SB 375 makes it more difficult for communities to ignore housing allocation numbers. Under the bill, cities and counties have only three years to rezone according to the housing needs assessment, or they risk losing the option to deny affordable housing projects, as long as those projects are consistent with the SCS.

California Environmental Quality Act

The new SB 375 legislation takes the landmark 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) a step further by instituting a housing and transportation planning element. As originally written, the CEQA requires a regional government to prepare an environmental impact report for any project it proposes. The environmental review process is eased for priority transportation and mixed-use development projects that are consistent with a region's SCS. The CEQA review can be a lengthy one, and SB 375 allows exemption or streamlining of an application to process "transit priority projects." These projects must include a density of 20 dwelling units per acre, within half a mile of current or planned high quality transit service.


California's SB 375 connects a state goal of reducing vehicle emissions to curb greenhouse gases with land use, transportation, and affordable housing. The law does so by requiring each region to develop Sustainable Communities Strategies, enforcing mandatory rezoning to allow for increased affordable housing according to housing needs, and prioritizing new housing development close to public transit. The law is the first in the nation to tackle land use planning in relation to greenhouse gases.


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