County considers ‘high level’ involvement in housing

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – A state-mandated Humboldt County housing plan will consider a new approach to serving the needs of lower-income residents – having the county move from merely zoning for housing to subsidizing and maintaining it. 

The question of whether the county should become actively involved in providing for housing is what Planning Director John Ford described as a “high level” decision during a June 6 Planning Commission hearing.

An imbalance between the need for housing, particularly low-income housing, and the amount of it that’s available is a key consideration at the county approaches approval of its Housing Element. 

The eight-year plan is a required element of the General Plan Update that describes how the county will meet housing need and identifies zoning to accommodate it. And with lower-income categories, the zoning maps haven’t been built out. 

In the last Housing Element cycle, from 2014 to 2018, the projected need for verylow and low-income housing in unincorporated areas was 212 and 135 units respectively. 

But building permits for only 33 units of very low income housing and 44 low income units were issued. 

“Staff believes that this draft Housing Element recognizes that the current regulatory paradigm isn’t working – it’s not getting enough housing built across the board,” said Senior Planner Michelle Nielsen. “Whether it be above moderate to very low income, we’re not meeting our numbers and housing is not affordable to the residents.” 

The plan’s options to address the issue include pursuing an initiative to provide housing under Article 34 – a section of the state’s constitution that requires voter approval for government-funded housing construction. 

Another new approach is to do what Nielsen described as “a better job responding to the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness, at risk or transitioning out of homelessness.” 

The Housing Element has expanded its range of options for doing the job, including tiny house villages, safe parking areas for people living in vehicles and 24/7 shelters consisting of semi-permanent tent or modular structures. 

But during public comment, Jan Turner of Legal Services of Northern California noted that a written staff report suggested that incentives for transitional, supportive and low income housing be applied generally, to all types of housing. 

Turner told commissioners that the county has “over-produced moderate income housing but severely under-produced affordable housing and those subsidies, to the extent that they exist, are necessary to allow affordable housing to be built.” 

The moderate income category is the only one that exceeded its forecasted need in the period from 2014 to 2018. The need was set at 146 units and 201 building permits were issued for the category. 

The issue of placement of housing was raised by commissioners Peggy O’Neill and Brian Mitchell, who live in McKinleyville, where debate over the intensity of multifamily zoning has led to legal challenges to past housing elements. 

O’Neill called attention to a map that defines almost all of McKinleyville as a Housing Opportunity Zone with development incentives. “Along with housing comes services that are needed, you can’t just concentrate houses in one area and it seems like McKinleyville, again, is getting hit pretty hard,” she said. 

Adding that she supports affordable housing development, O’Neill emphasized that if the county focuses on an area for housing development, there has to be a “commitment” from the county to provide law enforcement, transit and other services. 

McKinleyville and the greater Eureka area are the county’s main targets for housing expansion. Commissioner Brian Mitchell referred to an earlier staff presentation on the continuing expansion of sewage treatment capacity in the greater Eureka area, questioning whether McKinleyville will bear “a tremendous amount of (development) pressure” until the Eureka area’s infrastructure expansion is done. 

Supervising Planner Michael Richardson said that the unincorporated Eureka area’s residential development between 2014 to 2018 was 22 single family units and the infrastructure capacity was for 200 units. He added that an additional phase of sewage system expansion has been completed and a capacity of at least 1,500 units has been added. 

John Ford, the county’s planning director, described the element’s “very different stance” on meeting housing demand as a key area of consideration. “It says the county is going to look for money to make sure that these things can be accommodated and provided for,” he said. “That’s the big policy issue in front of you tonight – there are some really high level things being presented here, where the county gets more involved in doing things.” 

Considering the range and depth of issues involved, the commission and staff agreed that recommendations on the element should be held off to allow more time for public review. The hearing was continued to July 11.





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