Housing elements provide communities with goal driven strategies that ensure cities create zoning for housing that will accommodate people whose income ranges from extremely low, very low, low to moderate. Housing elements work in conjunction with a city's general plan. Novato is currently updating both its housing element and general plan.
Novato is providing a housing element update that redesignates affordable multifamily housing as buildable in densities of 20 units per acre. This is the single most important objective of the draft housing element. If it is approved it will provide Novato with a level of local control that maintains the character and integrity of existing neighborhoods while making the creation of affordable housing a fiscally sound proposition.
According to Novato's 2009-2014 draft housing element:
"Housing element law recognizes the most critical decisions regarding housing development occur at the local level within the context of the periodically updated general plan." page 2 Draft Housing Element 2009-2014 ..."
The most noteworthy words that are in this document are "critical decisions occur at the local level." It voices what everyone in our community wants — a basic say as to what is built in our neighborhoods, in our downtown, in our shopping centers, in our business and commercial districts and throughout Novato.
There are obstacles to passing a housing element with fewer than 30 units per acre of multifamily housing. We will be under scrutiny by HCD as well as agencies such as Public Advocates and Marin Fair Housing. It is up to us to prove that we have satisfied every law and every objective throughout this document. It would be helpful if the city could tell us what nonprofit groups were involved in the process of creating the housing element and which ones have threatened litigation as a means of controlling density or any other objectives. We need to challenge the misperception that affordable housing equals high density housing.
If the planning department can equalize issues between residents and developers and between Novato and other cities in Marin then our housing element and general plan would function with a greater appreciation for the financial circumstances of the majority of Novato's residents. For example, when a local resident attempts to build a second unit on their property it is critical that they are given the same permit discounts and streamlining that apply to nonprofit housing developers. In Novato fees for second units are excessively high. The income of Novato residents is modest by comparison to their southern Marin neighbors. This fact is commented on repeatedly throughout the report including lower overall market rate housing costs in mortgages and rentals. We need the ability to take care of our aging family members, help our adult children, support our disabled family members and provide housing for ourselves. If costs can be cut for developers then surely they can be cut for residents.
The housing element provides a list of quantified housing objectives and housing goals, policies and programs. Some are in favor of developers and nonprofits while others favor residents. By and large the distribution supports the efforts of nonprofit housing developers in order to satisfy HCD. It is important that we clarify with the planning department whether objectives, goals, policies and programs are the equivalent of mandates. If we give up local control particularly in environmental review, design and long term project management then we are left with projects that may cost us our neighborhoods. We need reassurances that this will not be the case.
Overall the draft housing element concludes that we can meet our regional housing needs requirements for 2009 through 2014, that our planning and building fees are comparable to other cities in Marin, but that our impact fees, sewer and water hookup fees need to be reduced in order to make housing development feasible for both developers and residents. The city proposes to work with the sanitary and water district to find ways to reduce or waive fees for developers. Could the city do the same for individual residents who would like to build second units on their property? Helping individual residents succeed in caring for our aging and disabled population is as important as supporting the development of affordable housing by nonprofit developers. If the city can see the individual as a valued partner, then we can work together toward common goals.