Napa County and its cities are among the 97.6 percent of California communities on the state’s “must do better” list when it comes to building affordable housing.

Local jurisdictions will now face the consequences of a new state law that reduces the number of hoops that developers of certain proposed apartment and condominium projects must jump through.

Senate Bill 35, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is designed to pick up the housing construction pace. A recent report by the California Department of Housing and Community Development showed that only 13 of the state’s 539 counties and cities are meeting state-mandated targets.

Napa County and its cities must automatically approve infill affordable housing projects meeting certain criteria. Hearings by planning commissions, city councils and boards of supervisors are limited to assuring compliance with Senate Bill 35 and design requirements.

Among the criteria are that a proposed multifamily project has at least 50 percent affordable housing, is on land with the correct zoning, is an infill project, will use prevailing-wage labor and is consistent with design review standards.

Public protests can’t stall or kill a qualifying project.

“When 97 percent of cities are failing to meet their housing goals, it’s clear we need to change how we approach housing in California,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, in a press release. He authored Senate Bill 35.

How many proposed Napa County projects will fit into the Senate Bill 35 box remains to be seen. Robert Massaro, a local developer who is with the Napa Housing Coalition, doesn’t see the new state law as a cure-all.

“There’s a lot of hurdles,” Massaro said. “That’s a small hurdle. I think you take your victories one at a time. I think that’s a small victory. We really need to concentrate on the obstacles at the local levels.”

Napa Housing Coalition is identifying these obstacles to building homes and should make its findings known in about 60 days, he said.

The county median home price is $600,000. Growth limit lines designed to preserve agriculture push housing development into cities, sometimes as infill projects that are controversial with neighbors.

Napa County and its five cities in 2016 issued permits for 177 housing units, an Association of Bay Area Governments report said. Of these, 90 percent were for houses affordable only to buyers with above moderate incomes. That compares to 82 percent for the entire Bay Area.

“Above moderate income” for state housing purposes is at least 121 percent of the median income. The median income in Napa County for 2016 was $75,000. That means Napa saw most of its 2016 homes built for people making $90,000 annually and more.

Local officials see changes coming. City of Napa Community Development Director Rick Tooker said his city has approved 215 affordable housing units that are waiting to be built. Another 180 units are under review.

“Next year is going to be tremendous,” he said. “We’re going to have a significant number, far better than communities that are substantially larger than our own.”

Tooker doesn’t see the Senate Bill 35 streamlining making a dramatic difference in his community, but for a positive reason.

“We already fast-track,” he said.

He mentioned the Stoddard West project. The Gasser Foundation publicly announced plans in April 2017 that it wanted to build the 50-unit affordable housing development in south Napa. The City Council approved the project in June 2017.

“That was reviewed at a pace I haven’t seen in a 30-year career for a project,” Tooker said.

Napa’s version of streamlining also allows multifamily housing projects of up to 10 units to proceed with only city staff approval and without Planning Commission or City Council votes.

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Senate Bill 35 streamlines the streamlining. It does away that 10-unit ceiling for by-right housing that need receive only staff approval, if the project meets Senate Bill 35 criteria.

Tooker noted one of those Senate Bill 35 requirements is that a project follows a community’s design standards.

“Most of our projects include some deviation,” he said. “It might be tandem parking, which was the case with Stoddard, even though we moved pretty quickly on that. Other times it’s reduced setbacks or something like that. I don’t think (Senate Bill 35) would apply in those particular instances.”

Why did Napa fall under the Senate Bill 35 consequences if it is making an effective affordable housing push? One reason might be timing. The state looked at permits issued in 2015 and 2016.

“The state only knows about building permits … they won’t have any sense what’s in the pipeline,” Tooker said.

Napa County recently wrote to the state that it “has continued to fund affordable projects in the incorporated cities at a pace not seen before in the valley.”

It cited such instances as the county committing $1.8 million to help fund American Canyon’s Valley View project, which will have 70 cottage-style rentals for seniors. It loaned $1 million for the Redwood Grove project of 34 homes for first-time buyers in the city of Napa.

The county’s push is to have most housing development in cities, not the incorporated county. That is done to preserve farmland and open space. Still, the unincorporated county now has 13 sites that county officials said are subject to Senate Bill 35 streamlining for apartment and condominiums.

None are in the heart of wine country. Two are at Pacific Union College in Angwin. Ten are around Lake Berryessa, far from both Napa Valley vineyards and the county’s population centers.

The thought is the Berryessa sites might develop once resort renovations take place at the lake, said Nancy Johnson, the county’s housing and community development program manager.

The final site is at Napa Pipe next to the city of Napa. The 154-acre former industrial property, besides a planned Costco, is to have 945 homes, with the nonprofit developer MidPen Housing working on 140 units meeting affordable housing standards.

Unincorporated Napa County initially made the state’s list of only 13 communities meeting house-building targets. But county officials recently said they mistakenly reported certain projects for the wrong time frames and contacted the state to make the corrections.

That means the county will lose its housing gold star. It will fall among the 97 percent of California communities that must do more, a number that Planning Commissioner Jeri Hansen thinks puts the local housing situation in a statewide context.

“We are not in this alone,” Hansen said at a recent Planning Commission meeting.

California requires communities to plan for a certain amount of homes in eight-year cycles under its Regional Housing Need Allocation program that started in 1969. The Association of Bay Area Governments divided the nine-county Bay Area’s assigned 187,990 housing units for 2015-23 among its counties and cities.

The total for Napa County and its cities is 1,482 housing units.

The city of Napa has the biggest housing burden in Napa County. It must plan for at least 835 units over eight years that are very low income, 106 that are low income, 141 that are moderate income and 403 that are above moderate income.

Yountville has the smallest eight-year allocation. It must plan for 17 housing units, of which four are very low income, two are low income, three are moderate income and eight are above moderate income.

Senate Bill 35 looks at how many permits have been issued for new housing units. Communities needed to have 25 percent of their eight-year allocation numbers permitted in the various affordability categories to avoid triggering the streamlining requirement for this year.

Communities that failed in all categories must streamline qualifying housing projects with at least 10 percent of the units affordable. Communities that met only their market rate targets—such as Napa County and its cities—must streamline projects with at least 50 percent of the units affordable.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.