City to institute inclusionary zoning

Will require some developers to include low-cost units in their projects

Is it “central planning” and “social engineering,” as Councilman Larry Wahl charged, or simply offering residents more choices in housing, as Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas asserted?

Wahl and Luvaas were at opposite ends of a philosophical disagreement about the role of government in managing the supply and nature of housing stock in Chico during a special joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission Tuesday evening (March 17).

At issue was a draft update of the housing element of the city’s general plan and particularly its suggestion that the city explore creating special zoning—called inclusionary zoning—that would require some developers to include housing for low-income residents in their projects.

A clearly frustrated Wahl was a minority of one among a dozen commissioners and council members (Commissioner Kathy Barrett and Councilwoman Mary Flynn were absent) in his conviction that the housing element was a example of dangerous meddling on the part of government, calling it “central planning” and “social engineering.”

“It will require a bureaucracy the likes of which we’ve never seen in Chico,” he contended.

It’s not “social engineering,” Luvaas responded; it’s offering people more housing choices.

Wahl’s comments got Mayor Ann Schwab’s dander up. More than 150 groups and individuals participated in numerous meetings and workshops to help come up with this plan, she told Wahl, accusing him of sending out a message that their recommendations were worthless.

The updated housing element, she said, was a “very easy, very flexible” plan and a big improvement on the current element.

Housing elements are like templates in which local agencies show how much land is available for housing generally and that they meet the state’s expectations for population growth as well as the provision of a balanced housing mix.

But, as Councilman Andy Holcombe pointed out, they don’t necessarily result in the actual provision of sufficient low-cost housing. Chico, he stated, hasn’t built nearly as many low-cost units as its housing element calls for.

“I believe we need to beef up the productivity in the housing element,” he said. And the best way to do that was to utilize inclusionary zoning as development projects come forward.

Most developers are opposed to inclusionary zoning. During the public hearing on the housing element, Jason Bougie, director of the Butte Community Builders Association, argued that inclusionary zoning drives up the cost of a project’s non-inclusionary homes, making housing ultimately less affordable. He added that a lawsuit now working its way through the California courts challenges the legality of inclusionary zoning and that he believed it would be determined not to be legal.

Councilman Jim Walker noted, however, that some 120 California local governments had adopted inclusionary zoning, and three that hadn’t—Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton—were exactly what he didn’t want Chico to become.

He urged that the language in the housing-element update be changed to say “the city plans to develop” inclusionary zoning, rather than just “explore” the issue.

Inclusionary zoning was just one of five new action programs contained in the update that the council and commission needed to decide on Tuesday. The others were:

Housing trust fund. This would collect monies that could be used to meet housing needs difficult to meet because of state and federal restrictions. Redding has such a fund, which now contains some $5 million.

Employer-assisted housing. This would encourage local businesses to support the city in creating affordable housing for workers.

Infill-incentive plan. The city wants to encourage development on small parcels in the urban area. For many reasons, such projects are difficult for developers to do. This plan, which will be included in the updated general plan, will attempt to make the process easier and less costly.

Affordable-housing resource guide. This will connect people in need of low-cost housing with available resources. It will take form as both a booklet and an interactive Web site.

About 10 people spoke during the public hearing, including several representing local agencies involved in providing affordable housing or working with low-income people.

The latter included Dave Ferrier, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program; Emily Fisher, representing Legal Services of Northern California; Nicole Bateman, executive director of Caminar, which assists disabled people and has a subsidized housing project for its clients on The Esplanade; and Debbie Villaseñor, a housing consultant with the county Department of Behavioral Health. All urged that the city commit itself to inclusionary zoning.

Their main argument was that mixed-use inclusionary zoning, in addition to providing more low-cost housing, contributes to a more diverse community by spreading out that housing instead of massing it in a small number of neighborhoods.

Other than Bougie, the only person speaking against inclusionary zoning was Juanita Sumner, who said that as a former landlord she was well aware that “there’s plenty of housing out there. Take a look at Craigslist. … I see no reason to increase the housing stock by spending city money.”

In the end, on a motion by Holcombe, after firming up the inclusionary-zoning language as recommended by Walker, the council approved the draft housing element 5-1, with Wahl dissenting.