Reframing Community Conversations About Housing
Housing has been a robust topic of conversation at Merced City Council meetings. During the past 18 months, Council has heard from community members about the critical need for affordable housing and the need for creating amenity-rich sustainable neighborhoods throughout the City of Merced.
As State policy makers continue to change legislation to boost housing production and remove barriers to construction, this City Council has followed the State’s leadership to enact affordable housing policies that alleviate barriers and spur housing production locally.
The following legislation expedites housing approvals, ends single-family-only zoning, and creates opportunities for small neighborhood multifamily developments. These are three of 58 housing-related bills signed by Governor Newsom since 2021 to address California’s housing crisis.
- Senate Bill 6 – Senator Anna Caballero – SB 6 allows residential development on property zoned for retail and office space without needing rezoning.
- Assembly Bill 2011 – Assembly member Buffy Wicks – AB 2011 creates new housing opportunities and allows housing to be built by right in infill areas currently zoned for office, retail, and parking uses.
- Senate Bill 35 – Senator Scott Wiener – SB 35 changed the local review process and established a streamlined, ministerial approval process for multifamily affordable housing and mixed-use commercial projects to streamline the production of affordable housing units.
To further advance Merced in removing barriers to affordable housing, this Council enacted a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) Production Program requiring private development in certain circumstances to construct or contribute funds to support affordable housing. This program will provide units towards the RHNA goal established by the State, which is approximately two times the growth rate the City has experienced over several years, well over 10,000 new units over eight years. The City is only required to demonstrate adequately zoned sites to meet the RHNA goals. Still, this program takes it further, leading to the construction of units that will provide more opportunities for our citizens to find affordable housing.
Additionally, Council provided direction on a multi-jurisdictional housing element update, and a two-part Zoning Code update. Part one of the Zoning update addresses immediate needs; grant-funded consultants will handle the second. This will address the Density Bonus Section, review current code for “objective standards” and make other recommendations that may support the City’s potential “Pro Housing Community” designation by the State. This helps affordable housing builders leverage additional funding.
Past code requirements allowed for the units in certain zones but did not specify a density. This highlighted an inconsistency between the City’s General Plan and Zoning Code. Updates include adding a density for multi-family units in several commercial zoning districts to ensure consistency. Code language that went into effect in October 2022 did not change how units are considered, as they were already processed through a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process. These changes provide the same community notice and opportunity for public comment and involvement.
Through the annual budget process, the Council set aside funds for a local Housing Trust Fund to provide support towards affordable housing projects. This will help leverage additional state funding and tax credits further supporting affordable housing.
Throughout California, commercial development encourages housing integration within a project to support a close customer base. These complement each other and reflect the State’s shift in how it views traditional traffic levels of service (LOS) to vehicles miles traveled (VMT). In addition, commercial developers focus on lifestyle by integrating entrainment, retail, office, service uses, and other business types within a project area. Supporting changes to codes that fit these trends will advance our community.
During the annual General Plan review and update, analyzing best practices and local market needs in terms of land zoned for commercial – retail uses will be part of the process. Traditional brick-and-mortar retail storefronts have had a difficult time over the past few years, given the changing consumer preferences and the COVID pandemic. There has been a shift toward virtual shopping and interest in home or cottage-type businesses. Commercial development requires certain types of access, pass-by trips, and other factors determining location. The City is modernizing its Sign Code content to encourage commercial investment. Existing traditional commercial-zoned locations may not meet the current commercial retail development requirements. However, those locations supporting mixed-use development and stand-alone housing create opportunities to add units.
Recently, the City provided an update on $49 million in funding for affordable housing projects in development that will offer 623 affordable units. Additional funding includes $1.125 million for first-time mortgage assistance, and $1.375 million supporting owner-occupied rehabilitation assistance. To read the press release, visit https://www.cityofmerced.org/Home/Components/News/News/1504/17
The City’s General Plan and Multi-Jurisdiction Housing Element Updates address housing needs such as limited inventory challenges and supporting affordable units’ production. There is also a need for balance supporting commercial–retail development and its changing trends. These policy documents require code changes. The Council and community should adapt to change and actively engage in policy updates. These new codes and standards should be objective. Community input and involvement is critical and welcomed as the City seeks to adopt policies that fit the needs of the community.
Matthew Serratto is the mayor of Merced.