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Can Tech Help Turn the Tide on California’s Housing Problem?

The city of Elk Grove uses an app that pushes citizens who participate in citywide housing density discussions to craft their own solutions, not just object to what has been proposed.

Aerial view of a dense suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles County, Calif.
A neighborhood in Los Angeles County, Calif.
Christopher Jordan is all too familiar with the traditions of California’s fraught housing politics.

Every eight years, the state requires municipalities to submit a plan — called a “housing element” — to show where they will accommodate their share of the region’s needs. This doesn’t mean enough housing will get built to meet the target, or that it will get built in the designated areas. But it is meant to push cities to show they can accommodate new residents, and in theory, state funding can depend on the outcome.

But anything to do with local housing politics, even theoretically, can get really heated, really fast.

“They all get contentious,” says Christopher Jordan, director of strategic planning for Elk Grove, a city of 170,000 near Sacramento. “You've got property owners concerned they're going to have new density obligations. You've got council members concerned over proliferation of multifamily in their districts.”

That’s why, this time, Jordan tried something new. The pandemic forced most public engagement online, but early research suggests that the simple act of shifting from a town hall to Zoom didn’t change who participates or how. The same angry, largely privileged voices dominated.

But what if, to participate, local residents had to do more than stand athwart local zoning codes shouting “stop”? What if to help craft a “housing element” they had to recommend where housing could go, as opposed to only trying to block it?

That’s where a housing simulation tool created by Balancing Act comes in. The company is known for aiding citizen engagement with local budget practices, but their new effort allows residents to craft their own proposed housing plans for their community.

In Elk Grove, residents were presented with a map of their city, divided into council districts. Then they could scale zoning up or down throughout the city to accommodate the number of units they need to be able to build. Planners did not allow feedback to be submitted unless a plan for fully accommodating new potential housing was included.

The tool can be tweaked in myriad ways. Another city divided the city up by areas that were zoned predominantly residential and those zoned for commercial, as opposed to council districts. Another did not make feedback submission contingent upon fulfilling the full housing allotment (but they were an outlier).

“In order to fully participate, you can’t just be a critic,” says Chris Adams, president of Balancing Act. “Even if [participation] is not dramatically more diverse, it asks people to solve the problem. If you're white, middle class, a homeowner, you know how to scream at a public meeting. You can scream at the simulation, but for your input to count you have to be a problem solver.”

Problems Tech Can Solve, and Political Problems It Can’t

Elk Grove is the first city to complete its housing element using Balancing Act’s tool. But Jordan says it's the easiest time he’s had of it in his decades as a city planner in California.

A big difference maker was that the tool allows the city to move beyond neighborhood-by-neighborhood outreach. Going hyperlocal incentivizes people to protect their block, but emotions are less pitched when they have to engage with a citywide plan.

Over 1,000 residents participated from all over the city, for an average of over seven minutes each. 193 hours of resident time were put into building plans and 91 residents completed an entire proposal. Some sites for new housing were more supported than others, giving city planners a good way to move forward.

“I think a lot of software companies are trying to think about ways to restructure these conversations,” says Katherine Levine Einstein, professor of political science at Boston University. “It helps solve a really fundamental problem at public meetings, which is that you're presenting a project and asking people if they like it or not — which essentially invites nitpicking.”

But while changing what public engagement calls for can be productive. Einstein says technology can’t solve the essential problem of who participates in these meetings. From the research she’s been doing so far during the pandemic, the same nonrepresentative, largely oppositional, and over privileged people dominate online engagement.

There are other things software can’t solve. For one, scholarly work finds gaping flaws in California’s system of housing planning. One study found that the median Bay Area city approved new housing on less than 10 percent of the sites in its housing plan. That’s not to say no building is happening — the median city reaches 60 percent of its target — just not on the sites selected by planners. The authors found that 70 percent of homes in the Bay Area built between 2015 and 2019 were not on sites listed by housing plans.

Beyond that, there is also evidence that many plans that have been submitted are completely unrealistic.  Some cities have submitted plans where new housing is proposed in the median of a roadway or on the site of an already-constructed hospital.

“If you look at a lot of these plans, they’re complete junk,” says Clayton Nall, a political scientist at University of California, Santa Barbara. “Cities introduce them to construct the illusion they are going to meet state requirements without rezoning single family neighborhoods for multifamily. But they have to do that if they're going to actually meet state requirements.”

Reshaping Public Engagement 

Jordan says that the limitations of the housing element process, and of California’s housing politics more broadly, are being fought out in Sacramento. (Reforms are coming.) “That disconnect [between the plan and what actually happens] is inherent to the process, and not one that the outreach effort attempts to solve,” says Jordan.

It’s one Elk Grove will soon have to confront. The city is running out of land in the corporate limits that has infrastructure available and allows new development. Most of the single family lots have some level of approval on them already, and there are 31 lots set aside for multifamily housing. But more will be needed and that will require changes in zoning, which will be a very heavy lift.

“We're hoping to see more of that [multifamily] develop so we can meet our regional obligation,” says Jordan.

The less-acrimonious-than-usual planning process for the housing element has been noticed by other jurisdictions. The Association of Bay Area Governments contracted with Balancing Act to make use of the proactive tool for future housing elements. Eleven cities and counties have contracted with the company so far. Cities in states like Texas, Washington and Colorado have also expressed interest, even though there aren’t state mandates to put forward housing plans.

“The best and highest use of our technology is as a leadership tool, as a facilitation tool,” says Adams of Balancing Act. “If I were an elected official or planning director, I would use this to frame the right kind of a conversation that my community needs to have. Technology is not the be all end all, but it's a really powerful leadership tool in the right hands.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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