2009 Housing Element Update

This is the first in an occasional series of commentaries the Reuben & Junius Update is publishing on San Francisco’s ongoing process of adopting a new Housing Element. The Housing Element is one of the mandatory elements of the City’s General Plan. The General Plan is the City’s most basic and comprehensive planning document. As described by the late Daniel Curtin in his annual “California Land Use and Planning” handbook, the General Plan “provides the blueprint for development throughout the community, and is the vehicle through which competing interests and the needs of the citizenry are balanced and meshed. The General Plan addresses all aspects of development, including housing, traffic, natural resources, open space, safety, land use, and public facilities.” So the General Plan is the “big picture” document that states City policies and objectives in broad strokes. It is very different from the City’s zoning ordinance (Planning Code), which is very detailed in its implementation of all zoning and land use matters, including, of course, the furtherance of the policies in the General Plan. The General Plan and the City’s zoning ordinances must be consistent.

The complete General Plan is located on the San Francisco Planning Department’s website. San Francisco’s General Plan is broken into two parts, the main plan elements under Section 1 (which includes seven mandatory elements required by state law), and a series of 15 different “area plans.” The area plans focus on discrete geographic areas of the City and provide for a more detailed series of plans and objectives related to each specific area.

State law requires that the Housing Element be updated periodically, usually every five years. That didn’t happen for a while, as there was a long, 14-year gap between the City’s 1990 Housing Element (then called the Residence Element) and the 2004 Housing Element. The 2004 Housing Element was challenged in court. The challengers claimed that the Housing Element could not be adopted without preparation of a full environmental impact report (EIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The California courts agreed and directed the City to prepare an EIR for the 2004 Housing Element. Because there has been yet another rather long gap between the 2004 Element and where we are today, the Planning Department is preparing an EIR that will cover both the court’s mandate for the 2004 Element as well as analyze the environmental effects of the proposed 2009 Housing Element.

On September 2, 2009, the Planning Department issued a Notice of Preparation of an EIR report for the 2004 and 2009 Housing Element. That document is also available on the Planning Department website and presents what we believe to be a very good comprehensive overview of both elements (2004 and 2009) as well as the CEQA process they are undertaking and how they will be approaching the issue of environmental effects under CEQA. Planning staff has recently completed an EIR scoping meeting to set the parameters of the CEQA review. Earlier this year, the Planning staff hosted a series of meetings and workshops throughout the City to hear directly from interested parties what their housing priorities and needs were. Planning’s website indicates that they hope to publish the Draft EIR by in the spring of 2010, with a Final EIR and adoption by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors later next year. However, you don’t have to wait for the Draft EIR to see the Draft 2009 Housing Element. It is also available on the Planning Department’s website “http://housingelement2009.sfplanning.org/”

In the coming months, we will be taking a closer look at a variety of the different policies and objectives of the Draft 2009 Housing Element. Not surprisingly, the document continues to ratchet up the pressure on the City to find ways to create and facilitate the construction of more affordable housing and also the preservation of existing affordable housing. It also includes the first ever policies and objectives related to sustainability in green building, and for the first time includes an objective that directs the City to “ensure a streamlined, yet thorough, and transparent decision-making process.”

Please let us know if you have any questions about the Housing Element process, or how to find a copy of the Draft 2009 Housing Element that is on the Planning Department’s website. We look forward to bringing you more in-depth analysis of a number of Housing Element topics in 2010.

Our update team will be taking a break for the holidays. Our next issue will be the week of January 4, 2010. Happy holidays to all of our clients and friends.

Reuben & Junius, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leases, purchase and sale agreements, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.