By Jack Stubbs

Home to approximately 7.75 million people, Northern California’s San Francisco Bay Area comprises nine counties, and regional initiatives and city municipalities are continually looking for ways to develop — and continually improve — roadmaps for how the region can continue to grow sustainably. 

One such initiative is Plan Bay Area 2050 (PBA 2050), a state-mandated, long-range transportation and land-use plan — led by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) — that aims to provide a blueprint for how the region can accommodate projected household and employment growth, as well as develop goals around environmental sustainability and regional transportation networks. 

Collaboration between agencies like HCD, ABAG and MTC is increasingly important and reflects a multi-pronged approach at the local level to combat the housing affordability crisis in the region, thinks John Goodwin, Public Information Officer with the MTC. “The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) requires that local governments of cities — and counties, for the unincorporated areas — must plan for all income levels in the Housing Element of their general plans. This is coordinated by MTC and ABAG; and since we share the same staff, we’re all in this together.”

This is not a new issue; it has really been one that the region has tried to grapple with for decades; but in the current economic conditions, and the post-recession boom in the Bay Area, this long-standing problem has grown from serious to critical.

In late March 2019, the City of San Jose released a “request for regionally-significant projects” from each of the nine-county transportation agencies to compile a financially-unconstrained list of projects and programmatic investments for consideration in PBA 2050. As part of the Memorandum, the city of San Jose’s Department of Transportation (DOT) will submit a list of projects on to the Santa Clara Valley of Transportation (VTA) on behalf of the city of San Jose. The deadline for VTA to respond to MTC’s request for projects is July 31, 2019. 

PBA 2050 in many ways reflects a collaborative attempt to plan for anticipated regional growth. In the collaborative effort occurring in San Jose, for example, the DOT will provide the VTA with a compilation of a 30-year list of projects based on adopted plans, programs and needs, and an assessment of these various projects against citywide and broader regional transportation goals. 

After reviewing both the PBA 2050’s guiding principles and the City’s transportation goals, DOT staff developed ten project criteria for their proposed projects, some of which include public safety, transportation system effectiveness, equity and diversity, affordable transportation options and the leverage of emerging technology, according to the call-for-projects memorandum released earlier this year. 

In response to the wide-ranging goals around environmental sustainability and regional transportation infrastructure, DOT’s submission to the VTA was varied in scope — ultimately, DOT drafted a list that includes 345 projects and programs, of which 332 are transportation projects, eight are environmental projects, four relate to land use and one to housing.

The latest call-for-projects is one that each of the nine Bay Area counties is responsible for and represents the latest chapter in the initial objects developed in the original Plan Bay Area in 2013, according to Goodwin. “Where things stand with the plan is that things are just getting started right now; this is a two-year process that will wrap up in 2021 when a new regional plan is adopted, so we’re right at the ground floor. Every one of the nine Bay Area counties is involved in a similar process to identify their priority projects around transportation.”

PBA 2050 encompasses nine counties and 101 cities and towns that make up the region and reflects state and federal influence as well. “We’re required to do this under both state and federal law; we’re obliged to develop a long-term regional transportation and land-use plan, and we’re similarly obliged to update that plan every four years. Since Plan Bay Area [2040] was implemented in 2017, we’re under the gun to have a next plan [PBA 2050] developed and adopted by 2021,” Goodwin said. 

And while the recent call-for-projects released to the nine Bay Area counties represents business-as-usual for PBA 2050, in the longer-term, the recent updates to this year’s plan coincide with efforts that are ramping up to combat the long-standing issues around housing affordability in the Bay Area region. “Procedurally, this goes according to plan; there’s a predictable schedule of things that need to be done. But what is important, really, about PBA 2050 is that the development of the plan coincides with another state mandate. When we develop a plan, we’re obligated to do that in coordination with RHNA (Regional Housing Need Allocation),” Goodwin said.

While issues around housing affordability in the San Francisco Bay Area have become increasingly pressing and acute over the last several years in particular — with development costs and rents in San Francisco, in particular, having risen considerably in relation to its neighboring cities — the awareness around housing affordability and income disparities in the Northern California region has a long-standing history. In 1969, the state of California mandated that all cities, towns and counties must plan for the housing needs of its residents, regardless of income as part of an initiative called the Housing Element and Regional Housing Need Allocation. 

As part of RHNA, which is conducted by ABAG every eight years, HCD determines the total number of new homes the Bay Area needs to build — and how affordable those homes need to be — in order to meet the housing needs of people at all income levels, according to ABAG’s website. Each local government must then devise a general plan to show the locations where housing can be built, and the policies and strategies necessary for this provision of housing. 

As the Bay Area region continues to expand, there is a growing recognition that effective transportation networks, and subsequently issues around housing affordability and geographical mobility, are two sides of the same coin in the longer term, says Goodwin. “Housing and transportation cannot be separated; they are absolutely intertwined. The most important issue facing the region is obviously housing affordability,…people are very often required, but are not able to afford to live near their place of work, particularly if they work in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley,” he said. 

According to the RHNA document for the eight-year 2015 to 2023 period, the total number of units needed (across four different income levels) is 187,990 — including 46,680 very low-income units, 28,940 low-income units, 33,420 moderate-income units and 78,950 above-moderate-income units needed. 

This determinate in RHNA is based on population projections released by the California Department of Finance (DOF), which also took into account the relative uncertainty surrounding the regional economy and housing market. For this cycle, for example, HCD made an adjustment to the eight-year figure project to account for abnormally high vacancies in the Bay Area. 

The income categories are defined relative to each county’s Area Median Income (AMI). Very low-income units are affordable to households with annual income up to 50 percent of AMI; low-income units are affordable to households with annual income between 51 and 80 percent of AMI; Moderate Income units are affordable to households with annual income between 81 and 120 percent of AMI, and Above Moderate units are affordable to households with annual income above 120 percent of AMI. 

Of that larger figure totaling nearly 190,000 units, some of the counties with the greatest need include Santa Clara County (which needs 58,836 units across the four income classes); Alameda County (needing a total of 44,036 units); and San Francisco County, which needs 28,869 total units, according to ABAG’s website. 

ABAG’s work on the RHNA for the 2022-2030 cycle will kick off in Fall 2019, and ABAG plans to release a drafted plan for the PBA 2050 Regional Growth Forecast and update its adopted growth framework in September of this year. In the meantime, the hope is that PBA 2050, and the RHNA program within it, will go some way towards easing the pressure around housing for a region very much in need, says Goodwin. “The RHNA for each jurisdiction is updated every eight years; so every other time we develop a regional transportation plan, we always have to do the RHNA process, as well. That’s particularly what differentiates PBA 2050 from the 2040 process that we undertook four years ago,” he said. 

“This is not a new issue; it has really been one that the region has tried to grapple with for decades; but in the current economic conditions, and the post-recession boom in the Bay Area, this long-standing problem has grown from serious to critical,” Goodwin added.

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