Saturday, February 12, 2005

Blueprint for growth

City prepares for predicted housing boom

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer, The Reporter

Creativity may turn the key to affordable homeownership in Vacaville as the city braces for a predicted population boom.

Vacaville's 2005 Affordable Housing Study explores nearly a dozen options city leaders will consider in planning for housing development in a region with a relatively stable apartment vacancy rate, but a sales market that may lock out lower income buyers.

Maureen Carson, senior planner, said a look at affordable housing is part of the city's strategic plan adopted in 2003. The current study primarily deals with affordable housing.

"The council's intent really was to look at what the city can do to encourage construction of affordable ownership housing," Carson said. "That was kind of the narrow focus of this report."
The study includes a report from the Association of Bay Area Governments - "Projections 2005" - which predicts that the nine- county Bay Area will be home to about 7.75 million by the year 2015. That's an increase of some 657,000 new residents and 235,630 new households.

City staff has concluded the lack of affordable housing in the greater Bay Area is why employees and their families are moving to cities like Vacaville.

According to ABAG's report, Solano County's seven cities will bear the brunt of the population swell, with an additional 80,700 people during the next decade - mostly moving to Vacaville, Fairfield and Vallejo.

And, Solano is also projected to be the Bay Area leader with the highest job growth between 2000 and 2015 due to the availability of land designated for commercial and industrial development. The county is projected to add more than 39,160 jobs between 2000 and 2015, a percentage increase of 29 percent.

In Vacaville's next decade, 16,000 people could be added in 5,290 new households - an average annual growth rate of slightly more than 529 households per year. The number of local jobs in Vacaville is projected to increase by 11 percent by 2010, from 28,880 to 31,920 jobs.

Those figures can't be ignored by city officials. State law requires each city and county prepare and adopt a housing element for its general plan every five years. The state determines what is expected in statewide growth, then tells ABAG what the growth will be in the nine-county Bay Area. ABAG then allocates housing target numbers to each city.

Vacaville's 2001-06 housing element was certified easily and reviewed recently, Carson said.
"We pretty much breezed through the state review process, and they were satisfied that we met the laws," Carson said. "If you look at Vacaville compared to other similar cities, we're doing at least as well or better than other cities our size."

ABAG assigned Vacaville for the 2001-06 window 5,365 units for a mix of housing at income levels ranging from "very low" - below $36,950 annual - to "above moderate" - $88,700 annual - income. Vacaville's remaining need is 2,137 units.

The median household income in Solano County is projected to increase by 13 percent during the next 10 years, from $73,900 to $82,700 - $18,500 below the projected Bay Area average of $101,200.

A citywide apartment rental vacancy and rental rate survey conducted in October found the overall vacancy rate is 6.4 percent - the highest vacancy rate since 1986 following the 1980s apartment construction boom. While rental rates have increased since 2000, the actual increases have been fairly low.

Carson said staff has come up with some 11 options for the City Council to consider to encourage the development of affordable homeownership.

"Some of these options are simply tweaking or amending existing programs or policies that we have, and some ideas are new for them to consider," she said.

New options include promoting infill development by partnering with developers to construct new affordable housing.

"The city's actually got a pretty good track record of partnering with developers to do multifamily rental housing, but we're looking at maybe taking that to the next step to do ownership housing," Carson said.

Another idea is to include duets in new subdivisions. Gramercy Park, a subdivision built in south Vacaville in the 1970s, has a duet on every corner, Carson said. That's something that the city may want to incorporate in its larger projects, she said.

Also, the City Council is being asked to look at secondary living units, commonly referred to as "granny flats."

"The owner not only has the home they are buying, but they have a secondary living unit for a family member, or for a rental," Carson said.

But first, the council may amend current constraints in place for granny flats including impact fees.

"Our fees for the secondary living units are fairly high, so we're asking the council to look at our fee structure. That might by itself encourage construction of secondary units, and be more feasible for residential builder," she said.

Another option is to require smaller lot sizes and smaller floor plans in new subdivisions.
"Generally, over the past few years, we've seen home sizes - the floor area - increase substantially, even in small lot subdivisions. What would normally be entry level housing, the homes are fairly large.

"What we'd like to suggest is we may want to have a requirement that there be a floor plan or two that would be on the smaller size, so it would make it more relatively affordable."

Carson said the housing element law does not require the city to construct the units, but requires cities to make sure there is enough land zoned to accommodate its fair share, while requiring cities to look at existing policies to encourage development.

"It also requires us to look at what constraints there are that we have control over that we may be able to change," she said. "Some examples are are our fees excessively high? Are there any other factors that the city has control over that we can change?"

Without a certified housing element, a city could be subject to lawsuits from developers or housing advocates. Being out of compliance also could jeopardize the city's eligibility for certain state grants.

The City Council is likely to begin a new strategic planning process later this month, Carson said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

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