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By Steve Levy

Regional Growth Plans Explained

Uploaded: Aug 9, 2013

Last month the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) adopted Plan Bay Area, an integrated land use and transportation strategy for the Bay Area through 2040. At the same time ABAG adopted the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) that sets planning targets for housing in each community through 2022.

For nearly 40 years regional growth plans have been required by the federal government to guide federal transportation funding that totals in the $billions each decade. Plan Bay Area provides an overview of the amount and location of job and housing growth over the coming 25 to 30 years--information that is helpful in designing transportation investment plans for efficiently moving people and goods within the region.

These regional growth plans are based on anticipated growth in jobs, population and housing and on where these jobs and housing are expected to be located within the region. The location of growth within the region is based on local plans, on staff analyses of current and expected trends and input from ABAG committees made up of local elected officials. Greg Scharff, Palo Alto's current mayor, is a member of the ABAG Executive Committee, which includes mayors, council members and county supervisors. Both the regional growth projections and plans are updated every four years to take account of changes in the growth outlook for the region.

With the passage of SB 375 additional goals were added to the long-term regional planning process—goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and locate housing within the region to match expected job growth.

Most public discussion in Palo Alto and around the state is about the RHNA housing planning targets. The housing planning targets are required by state law and now are updated every eight years. A regional target is approved by the state and ABAG committees work out the local distribution. Since cities do not build housing these targets are for planning and zoning purposes. If no private citizen or private or non-profit developer wants to build more housing in Palo Alto, it will not happen. Cities do not force private developers to build homes.

The RHNA housing targets are for all kinds of housing but the most contentious part of the RHNA process are the targets for low and moderate income housing, much of which is done in below-market-rate (BMR) projects that include a subsidy to help residents pay for housing. The ABAG committees have adopted a "fair-share" concept for these housing targets so all cities are expected to plan for some low and moderate income housing.

What is the relationship between Plan Bay Area and the RHNA? In theory the RHNA regional housing targets are based on regional job and related housing projections. This is how it will work in the future. But for this round and the current Palo Alto housing allocations, there was no connection. The RHNA was completed before Plan Bay Area regional growth projections were known. Both the state and ABAG agree that if the RHNA had been based on Plan Bay Area, the regional housing targets would be higher than under the adopted RHNA.

Is everyone expected to live and work in the same community? The answer is no. But there is a policy goal of shortening commutes through land use and transportation policies. One part of Plan Bay Area is the identification of "priority development areas" (PDAs) where housing and job centers are relatively near transportation corridors such as freeways, CalTrain or BART. In the Fremont to San Jose area now cities and developers are exploring options for housing and jobs near the new BART stations.

In assessing these land use, housing and transportation plans, it is important to remember that no one is forced to live in a specific place and housing and job developments are subject to review and approval by cities. Moreover, people are free to live outside the region in places like Tracy, Salinas or Davis and commute in to jobs in the region.

Would it make any difference in Plan Bay Area if greenhouse gas emissions magically disappeared? Probably not. One result would be that the region would be even more attractive as a place to live and work and growth would probably increase. But the trend toward locating jobs, housing and transportation to reduce the time and expense of travel is desired by residents and businesses apart from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and these plans would proceed because they meet the needs of residents and businesses.

For the current Pan Bay Area and RHNA, residents concerned about the impacts of housing and job growth have argued that the regional growth projections are too high. I produced the regional projections and have told ABAG that if new projections were done this year, they would be higher than those in Plan Bay Area. Job growth has surged in the past two years (averaging close to 100,000 jobs per year) and residents can see new plans for housing and job growth in our city, in our subregion and around the region even as demand pushes prices higher. Immigration reform proposals will increase the expected growth in the state and region. Last year Santa Clara County had the highest population growth rate among counties in California. This growth is the result of voluntary private decisions to live and work in the region. Plan Bay Area is an attempt to plan for this anticipated growth in a way that supports economic prosperity and provides a range of housing, job location and transportation options to minimize the potential negative impacts of the coming growth on our lives.