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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“I Would, If Only I Could” How Cities Can Use California’s Housing Element to Overcome Neighborhood Resistance to New Housing


City councils are on the front lines of California’s housing crisis. But local lawmakers who understand that California needs to accommodate a lot more housing are stuck in a political bind. Wherever they might put new housing, neighborhood groups spring up and oppose it. The same groups will have money to spend or voters to turn out at the next election. What’s a well-meaning city councilperson to do? Our answer: California’s “housing element” process provides a way forward. California requires cities to periodically adopt a state-approved plan, called a housing element, which accommodates the city’s share of regional housing need. These plans are reviewed and certified for compliance by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Cities across the state will adopt new housing elements between 2020 and 2022, guiding development for the next eight years. This process hasn’t always worked well in the past, but the legislature and HCD have recently strengthened the framework. There are now substantial political advantages for city officials to pursue pro-housing policies through their housing element, rather than through the normal municipal lawmaking channels.

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