The Livermore City Council recently approved a resolution to adopt its 2023-31 Housing Element and will now await final state certification before revisiting the document at a future time to make any potential changes.
A city's Housing Element is a section of its general plan mandated to be updated on a recurring basis, particularly focused on policies and zoning plans to accommodate the city's assigned Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) counts for new residential units within designated affordability categories.
"What this plan does is set the city up for implementation over the next eight-year period. To implement all the programs," Jennifer Gastelum, a consultant with the design and planning company PlaceWorks, told the council during its March 13 regular meeting.
"The Housing Element itself does not require you to build housing. The Housing Element identifies opportunities where there's land available to accommodate future growth. The city's job is to help facilitate the development of housing through the implementation of the programs," she added.
Livermore is one of the four other Tri-Valley municipalities that is awaiting review and approval of their plans for the current eight-year cycle by the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). San Ramon has so far been the only one that received its certified Housing Element as of February.
For the current Housing Element period, the Association of Bay Area Governments determined that the city of Livermore's share of RHNA was 4,570 new housing units, 2,075 of which are lower income units (1,317 very low-income units and 758 low-income units).
Based on residential capacity in the General Plan and specific plan areas -- plus an additional 15% buffer beyond the required RHNA to account for any sites that develop with fewer units than anticipated -- the sites identified in the land inventory in the newly adopted Housing Element would accommodate a total of 5,256 units, exceeding the RHNA allocation.
According to Livermore senior planner Tricia Pontau, the council had no choice but to adopt the Housing Element on March 13 without any new recommendations so staff could submit the document to HCD for final certification before facing any penalties such as the builder's remedy.
The builder's remedy states that if a jurisdiction fails to adopt a compliant update by the statutory deadline -- Jan. 31 for the Bay Area municipalities -- local governments could lose the authority to deny development proposals based on inconsistencies with their zoning and general plan requirements, if presented with a proposed development that meets state affordable housing rules.
"I urge you to adopt the Housing Element not because it's a perfect document, but because the alternative is dreadful," former Livermore planning commissioner John Stein told the council during public comments. "The developers remedy would allow a halfway house to be built next to a school, a condominium project be built on protected open space, or a six-story apartment be built in a single family neighborhood."
The city had first submitted a draft of the document to HCD last July after months of review from the Planning Commission and public input. The latest draft was submitted to HCD on Jan. 30 and then on Feb. 23, the city received a letter from HCD finding that the revised draft is in substantial compliance with state Housing Element law.
"You saw the original draft back in May of last year and since then, we've gone through a couple of rounds of revisions with the state and addressed public comment and comment from decision makers," Pontau told the council. "We received a letter from the state back on February 23, saying that the recent draft is in compliance with state law and they will certify the document if we adopt it."
According to Gastelum, now that the council has adopted the document, staff planned on submitting the city's Housing Element to the HCD to kick off that final 60-day certification process.
One of the main questions from the council on this matter was from Vice Mayor Brittni Kiick who asked to clarify that after the 60-day certification period the city is good to go and will not have to take any further action other than possibly making revisions to the document.
Gastelum and Pontau both said that the goal is to get it certified as quickly as possible.
"There are other cities that have received it much more quickly than 60 days so we're hoping to be one of those cities," Pontau said.
Some things that Gastelum said was different in this round of the Housing Element process compared to previous years was that staff had to include more detail in regards to the certainty of if and when developments would take place.
One example she gave was the The Isabel Neighborhood Specific Plan.
The plan would allow for 4,095 new multi-family housing units and approximately 2.1 million square feet of net new office, business park and commercial development just east of Isabel Avenue.
Along with a neighborhood commercial center, the plan also envisions three new parks, pedestrian and bike facilities and infrastructure improvements that will mostly be focused around the future Valley Link rail station, which would be located in the median of I-580.
"The state was very interested in it and thinks it's a great plan but they wanted to include some more information," Gastelum said. "They wanted more detail on the sites that are available there and then just basically how the city staff works with developers to actually make things come to fruition and happen."
She said that staff also had to include more information on the number of smaller sites and non-vacant sites within the community and identify that these were actually viable sites.
Along with a resolution to adopt the document, Livermore city staff also asked the council to adopt a resolution to find that the Housing Element is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local government agencies to outline any potential environmental impacts of proposed projects.
"Because the city does not have to rezone any sites or make any physical improvements to adopt the Housing Element, it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the proposed Housing Element would have a significant effect on the environment," according to a staff report from the Livermore Planning Commission from Feb. 28. "Thus, the 2023-2031 Housing Element is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) ... in that CEQA applies only to projects which have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment."
As for making any changes to the document in the future, Pontau said that once the state certifies the Housing Element, it will be brought back to the council to direct staff to review potential revisions.
"I think there are some things that could be cleaned up in the language that would make it a better and more equitable document in the way I read some of the language in there now," Councilmember Bob Carling said.
Councilmember Evan Branning echoed that statement as he also praised the hard work staff have put into this Housing Element cycle.
"As we come back for revision in the future, one of the things that I appreciate is that that is an option," Branning said. "I know there's a lot of very strict rules about the revisions that we can and can't make and how we can and can't make them but I believe the Planning Commission gave quite detailed feedback on this already."
A complete recording of the March 13 City Council meeting is available here.