Housing in Benicia – Mayor Steve Young

[Editor: Benicia’s housing needs, California regulatory requirements and regulations, and potential locations for new housing in Benicia are now being debated among residents and at our Planning Commission and City Council.  The issues are complex and opinion is divided among friends and colleagues.  See also perspective by former Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson.  – R.S.]

Mayor Young addresses housing issues

July 24, 2022

Steve Young, Benicia Mayor

I am writing this in response to the article printed in the Herald on July 20, [and here on the BenIndy, “Let’s Have an East-Side City park in the Historic Benicia Arsenal !“] as well as the many letters the Council has received relative to the possibility of rezoning a portion of two open space sites in Southampton for housing.

I first want to acknowledge the passion and intensity of the concerns expressed by a number of people about the City’s effort to complete the Housing Element in compliance with State law.  An engaged citizenry is crucial to the Council’s ability to make the best decisions while fulfilling our legal obligations.

On the Jefferson Ridge and Park Rd. projects, I think it is misleading at best to say that the City staff will “allow” the development of Jefferson Ridge or the apartments on Park Rd. under “ministerial discretion”. The City is not “planning to develop” these housing projects. The headline is also misleading (“Benicia moving to build apartment complexes”). Some fact checking is in order.

SB 35 specifically says that the City cannot exercise ANY discretion in this matter, as long as the project meets minimum affordability requirements (10%) and the city’s adopted Objective Design Standards. The project was initially rejected staff for not meeting those requirements, but  adjustments have been made and a decision on compliance with the design standards is  expected shortly.

This is not a project I would support in this location if I had the option to do so.  But the fact we cannot make any discretionary decisions means that there will be no hearings at the Planning Commission or City Council and no EIR. That is what the law requires, and we intend to follow the law – even in this case where we disagree openly with it.

SB35 is not a good law, and was opposed by me and the League of California Cities. The Legislature, however, believed that cities were one of the chief reasons that housing was not getting built in California. And there is some validity to that belief.

In suburban communities all over California, there have been only a relative handful of multi-family projects approved for a variety of reasons.  This has led directly to a variety of ill effects: increasing homelessness, longer commutes, increasing greenhouse gases, the inability of children to continue living in towns they grew up in, and few housing options for lower paid workers and seniors on fixed incomes.

I made a special trip to SF several months ago to meet with the author of SB 35, Sen. Scott Wiener, to argue that the Legislature ought to amend the law to exempt historic districts, like the Arsenal, from the blanket allowance of housing without local discretion. He waved off my objections dismissively and, despite my career in the field of affordable housing development, classified me as just another small town Mayor who has led the opposition to housing.

The property on Jefferson Ridge has been zoned for housing for quite some time, but has sat idle without any development proposals for years. Opponents of the project would like to see a park developed there instead, arguing (correctly) that the east side of town has fewer parks per capita than other parts of the city

The property was for sale a few years ago, yet no one proposed buying it for a park when it may have actually been possible to develop one (assuming we could find the millions needed to develop a park). When SB 35 was passed, the owner saw an opportunity to develop the property without having to contend with community or local government opposition.

I recognize and sympathize with people’s opposition to these projects; but my obligation is to follow the law and not expose the City to significant legal costs in a case we would almost certainly lose.

As far as the Open Space sites, the City Council had made the designation of such sites the lowest priority.  We have received multiple letters and a petition with hundreds of signatures urging us to stop a “62 unit affordable housing project” at the corner of Hastings and Southampton.

There is not, and never was, an application for such a project.

Consistent with the Council’s priorities, those sites have been dropped from the list to be submitted to the State for their review and approval.  However, if the State rejects enough of our proposed sites, we may need to reconsider those sites to achieve the needed zoning for 750 units.  (The City list exceeds more than 750 units to allow for the possible rejection of some sites.)

The SB 35 projects in the Arsenal are not part of the current effort to designate sites for 750 units of housing required as part of our Housing Element update for the period 2023-2031, but are included in our current Housing Element for the period 2014-2022.

The development of the new Housing Element is ongoing and there will be an important joint meeting of the Planning Commission and City Council on Tuesday, July 26 at 6 pm dedicated to this effort.  The Council will consider the final draft of the Housing Element on August 16.

People interested in this important topic are encouraged to attend or tune in and participate.

Steve Young
Benicia Mayor