Approximately 30 members of the public participated in a workshop about the newest revision of the Housing Element of the county General Plan last Wednesday, Aug. 28, at Redway Elementary School.
In spite of complaints about inadequate noticing of the workshop, this was an unusually large turnout compared to similar workshops during the last round of Housing Element Revisions in 2009 and 2010.
Most of the discussion centered around rural housing issues, particularly standards for alternative owner builder (AOB) homes, as well as affordable housing in both rural and “urban” areas (defined as areas served by public water and sewer systems).
Senior planner Michael Richardson conducted the workshop, assisted by Paula Mushrush, formerly the housing specialist for the county's economic development department.
Planning director Kevin Hamblin and 2nd district supervisor Estelle Fennell were also present and helped answer questions from the public.
The Housing Element is part of the General Plan, but updates to the Housing Element must be made every five to seven years, according to state law, rather than the 20-25 year cycle of the rest of the plan, Richardson explained at the start of the workshop.
The last Housing Element was approved in 2009, but went through several further revisions until all issues were resolved last year.
Each county is required to revise its Housing Element to show that it has enough land properly designated and zoned to meet the state's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA, pronounced “Reena”) requirements for all income levels.
The RHNA numbers and housing needs of unincorporated areas of the county are addressed in the county Housing Element, while each of the cities has its own General Plan and Housing Element.
For the period 2008 to 2014 Humboldt County had a high allocation, Richardson said. The unincorporated area of the county was required to provide for 2300 new housing units, of which 930 had to be available for lower income categories.
This time the state is giving everyone a “one-time discount,” Richardson explained, with a requirement of only 60 percent of the previous number.
He pointed out that the county's obligation is only to make certain that enough land is available to meet these requirements. The county cannot force anyone to actually build the housing.
”We're setting the table for the developers,” Richardson said.
Many of the workshop participants were longtime rural residents who expressed their belief that land outside the boundaries of water and sewer service districts can provide affordable housing through AOB units and secondary units.
According to Richardson, AOB is a “parallel” permitting process for people building single-family residences in rural areas for their own use. The AOB program reduces permit requirements and fees. AOB ordinances must also be updated to meet changing state requirements.
Three of the originators of Humboldt's AOB ordinance, Dan Taranto, Peter Childs, and Fred Bauer attended the meeting and explained the history of AOB.
”In 40 years ... almost everyone I've worked with wants to get it right... but the inertia is real and huge,” Childs said, describing what he called “institutional constraints.”
Workshop participants frequently pointed out that both the state and the county have dragged their feet about incorporating alternative technologies that can provide less expensive and more environmentally sound housing in rural areas.
Composting toilets and rainwater catchment systems were frequently cited as technologies that are receiving wider acceptance in other jurisdictions, and which should be included in Humboldt's AOB ordinance.
Particularly irksome is the county Department of Environmental Health's requirement that a composting toilet will be permitted only if the landowner also demonstrates that septic can be installed on the property.
The purpose of this requirement is to make sure that if subsequent owners are unable to safely maintain their composting system, they will be able to install septic, Richardson said.
Several people said they would like to see “the health department” included in the planning department. Moving DEH into the planning department has been discussed, Fennell said, adding, “And I won't preclude further discussion.”
A similar issue was allowing rainwater catchment and storage systems as a means of providing more water to landowners without draining watershed resources, since only a small portion of rainfall actually gets into the groundwater.
Earlier in the workshop two speakers had expressed concern about the impacts of development on the South Fork Eel River.
A speaker observed that the urban hub of the county has plenty of water available but water is much more limited in Southern Humboldt. “Infrastructure is not water,” she said after explaining that her main concern is keeping the South Fork Eel River “above ground.”
“We need to consider letting where we live determine how we live,” she said.
Another speaker pointed out that there is no basin study for the South Fork Eel. “I'd like to see low water as a fact of life translated into a water capacity study [that will provide] hard information for planning for growth, otherwise we're dealing with vague abstractions and hopefulness,” she said.
Housing advocates spoke in support of finding more ways to house low-income and homeless persons. Speakers gave several examples of what they felt to be barriers to providing shelters and inexpensive housing created by planning regulation.
One solution is to allow mixed-use housing in commercial areas, so that apartments can be built over businesses, Richardson said. The county added a mixed-use designation to the previous Housing Element, but only one property owner in the entire county has built housing over a commercial building - Rio Anderson, who created four apartments upstairs from the new Chautauqua Natural Foods store.
Residents of Phillipsville complained about their homes being designated as Conservation Floodplain. Fennell and Hamblin explained that this has recently been discovered to be an error, and that it will be changed. [See related story on the Aug. 26 GPU hearing in this issue.]
Several speakers supported the idea of providing more affordable housing for very low-income persons by allowing “secondary units” in both rural and urban areas.
”Secondary” units are different from “second” units, they explained. A second unit is a detached house with a kitchen that may or may not be as large as the primary residence, depending on specific units.
A secondary unit could be a cabin or studio without a kitchen, or it could be created within an existing house by building a wall that separates a smaller living area from the main living area.
”The biggest demand is for single occupancy housing for young people starting out in life or old people finishing up, perhaps after the death of a spouse,” Taranto suggested. He said that in the state of California any house with fewer than five occupants is considered “underutilized,” and therefore some jurisdictions allow the separation into a primary and secondary unit by right.
Several people spoke in support of nomadic campgrounds, areas where houseless people could camp or sleep in their vehicles with enough infrastructure for health and safety, rather than being rousted off the streets.
”When you allow someone to live on [the income] they have, it creates stability,” one speaker said. Studies show that more people transition from places like nomadic campgrounds into jobs and housing than from shelters. “No one transitions out of homelessness from shelters; they usually die on the street,” she said.
Another source of inexpensive housing is abandoned or foreclosed homes, she suggested, although many of such buildings have been more recently used as grow houses and meth labs and will require extensive clean-up.
The updated Housing Element must be submitted to the state by July 1, 2014, Richardson told the participants. Planning staff hopes to have a draft for the planning commission to review in November of this year.
When the planning commission has revised and approved the draft, it will go to the board of supervisors who will finalize and approve the Housing Element to submit to the state. At least two hearings at the planning commission and two with the board of supervisors are scheduled.
If all goes as planned, the new Housing Element can be sent to the state in May, giving the county some time to make any revisions the state requires.
Participants asked for “continuity,” meaning at least one more workshop in SoHum before the draft goes to the planning commission. Richardson agreed to schedule another workshop.
In the meantime, notes from last week's workshop will be sent to everyone on the mailing list.
Interested persons who are not on the mailing list should contact Richardson by email at email@example.com or by phone at 268-3723.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
Senior planner Michael Richardson heard comments about the county's housing policy and answered questions at a workshop attended by approximately 30 members of the public at Redway Elementary School last Wednesday evening, Aug. 28.