Back when I used to teach California land-use planning classes all the time, I usually chuckled when I got to the section where I had to cover the Regional Housing Needs Assessment and Housing Elements. The whole system, I used to say, was just strong enough to be annoying and just weak enough to be useless.

That’s not quite the case anymore, but the value of the whole system is still debatable. In fact, in the brand-new edition of Guide to California Planning, which was published earlier this month (shameless plug, I know), Paul Shigley and I stil declare: “It is very difficult to show that a good housing element will lead to more housing – especially more affordable housing – being built in a community.” Housing element advocates may disagree with me, but it’s worth noting that there appears to be no relationship between housing element compliance and housing construction in the state.

Nevertheless, whenever policy wonks start noodling about how to solve California’s housing crisis, they understandably turn to the RHNA process and the Housing Element. It’s a cumbersome and often ineffective process, but it’s the closest thing that the state has to a housing production policy. If you’re going to turn California housing policy into an effective tool for housing production, this is probably where you start.

That’s why two bills pending in the legislation – bills that appear likely to go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk by the end of the week – are worth looking at. They’ve both changed and been watered down, but they at least begin to tackle some of the underlying structural issues having to do with Housing Elements.

Of the two, the easier one to understand – and the one likely to have the most direct impact on the Housing Element process – is Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 828. This is the bill that originally required local governments to plan in their Housing Element for 200% of their RHNA housing allocation. It was the companion bill to SB 827 – the notorious local-override bill that got shot down in committee. 828 has got more legs than 827, but it has been watered down. Wiener played around with 150% of RHNA, then 125%.

The current version has no percentage of RHNA allocation in it. But it still has language that the Department of Housing & Community Development could use to begin attacking some of the structural and methodological barriers to higher housing targets. As it’s currently written, the bill directs HCD “to address the historic underproduction of housing by completing a comprehensive assessment on unmet need for each region and including the results of the assessment in regional allocations for the next housing element cycle” and then work that unmet need into its methodology.

That’s a big deal. One of the criticisms of the RHNA process is that it doesn’t take into account the current housing shortage – estimated by some as being around 2 million units -- and Wiener’s bill would at least give HCD room to begin to tackle that problem. It won’t take long for huge controversies over methodology to erupt.

Then there is Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s AB 1771. This is a more complicated bill, but it still holds the potential to be a game-changer. Bloom’s primary focus is on jobs-housing balance and housing opportunities for low-wage workers – not surprising considering that he’s from Santa Monica. But the bill also contains several methodological requirements that will make things tougher for councils of governments and local governments.

For example, it requires councils of governments to consult with HCD on the RHNA methodology, not the RHNA allocation plan, which is a later step. And it gives HCD a little more power in its review of the methodology.

And if you think this is just back-and-forth process among the locals, the COGs, and HCD, think about the fact that HCD is getting more aggressive in its housing element enforcement. Last year, the legislature gave HCD the clear power to review housing element compliance at any time – and the power to revoke that compliance at any time.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, HCD Director Ben Metcalf sent a pretty clear message by releasing a video documenting HCD’s stepped-up enforcement efforts under the new law. Among the highlights:

  • 53 jurisdictions are out of compliance. But …
  • HCD sent out almost 90 warning letter this year.

Message received: HCD is getting tougher on enforcement. And the state is going to get tougher on methodology – which is likely to lead to higher RHNA numbers. Now we’ll see whether all that results in more housing.