Housing quota charade time

Once again, the dependable but comparatively hollow seven-year cycle of California housing quotas is under way. It is a safe bet that when 2014 arrives, the Bay Area’s destructive housing shortage will be bad as ever.

In April, the Department of Housing and Community Development mailed its 2007-14 projected housing needs to regional planning agencies statewide. Hereabouts that agency is the Association of Bay Area Governments, and our new regional quota is 214,500. Last week ABAG asked San Francisco to build more than 33,000 new units, while the cities of San Mateo County got a quota of nearly 16,000.

During the 1999-2006 quota period, San Francisco was supposed to build 20,372 new units and succeeded in building 13,969. San Mateo County collectively built 7,872 — slightly more than half its 16,305 quota. ABAG’s allocation principle is that cities with more active job growth and better transit are expected to build more units.

Next the multicity counties will subdivide their quotas, and municipal planning staffs will report on what land and funding might be available for new housing — especially in very low- to moderate-income ranges.

There is, however, a significant glitch to this entire process. The state has never actually enforced its quotas. Local governments are free to build as much — or as little — new housing as convenient. Cities announcing they have insufficient land, financing or transit available for more housing have never been penalized.

No wonder consistently only about half the housing quotas are ever built, and new units tend towards market-priced or costlier homes. Yet despite the lack of teeth in the quota assignments, Bay Area localities do take these numbers seriously.

This might be partially due to civic-spiritedness. Bay Area officials are generally sophisticated enough to recognize that a thriving economy requires adequate housing opportunities for workers at all income levels. On the other hand, in theory at least, the California Housing Department does have authority to withhold various state funding grants from local governments that do not at least make a good-faith effort to expand their housing stock.

It might be arguedthat setting impossible quotas and brandishing the potential penalty of losing state grants is a practical method of at least getting some housing built. But it seems to us that all the time and effort now spent on going through the motions might be more productively used if the state set realistic smaller goals and encouraged more outside-the-box creative solutions.

In a suburban county like San Mateo, such creativity would include speeding completion of a regional agreement for trading housing quotas, so that cities with less room for growth could contribute cash to nearby construction. In San Francisco, opening up the surplus acreage at Hunters Point and Treasure Island to public-private development should become a top civic priority.

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