City works to streamline affordable housing projects

Visalia receives $310,000 grant to find ways to accelerate affordable housing to address state’s housing crisis 

The Sun-Gazette

VISALIA – Tulare County remains one of the most affordable places to live in California, but things could always be better, especially if the state of California is paying for it.

At its Feb. 18 meeting, the Visalia City Council authorized staff to accept a grant for $310,000 to streamline its process for approving affordable housing. In a Nov. 21 letter to interim community development director Paul Bernal, the California Department of Housing and Community Development said the city had been awarded the funds as part of the State’s Senate Bill 2 Planning grants. 

“The Program reflects the state’s commitment to work in partnership with local governments to address California’s critical housing needs,” Deputy Director Zachary Olmstead wrote. “Local governments are using the grant awards to accelerate housing production by streamlining the approval of affordable housing and promoting development consistent with the state’s planning priorities, among other related activities.”

SB 2 is part of a 15-bill housing package signed into law in 2017 that aims to address the state’s housing shortage and high housing costs. Specifically, SB 2 established a permanent source of revenue intended to assist with increasing the affordable housing stock in California through fees imposed on the recording of real estate documents. Half of the funds are dedicated to local planning grants that cannot be used on housing construction or other physical improvements. Future years of funding will largely provide grant money to local governments for affordable housing production and programs. 

Visalia will use the money to upgrade and improve the Community Development Department’s online permitting software, create and implement an agricultural mitigation program to address conversion of important farmland on the outer edge of the city limits and establish an impact fee and create standard building plans for Accessory Dwelling Unit’s (ADU’s).

The Community Development Department went online in 2018 with new electronic permitting software hosted by Accela after years of preparation. The new software has been successful in converting the Department’s plan-checking process into a completely online system where all building permit plans are reviewed and archived in electronic format without the use of paper plans, as well as having a more centralized system of reviewing and managing plan check and inspection statuses by both City staff and the public. However, additional costs are necessary to assist with expanding the capability and use of the existing permitting system. 

The goals of the software upgrade would be to expedite building permit review and allow managing of Site Plan Review applications and Planning Division entitlement applications. Currently, plans are accepted in electronic format only but cannot be submitted online; the applicant must submit at the City Hall East permit counter. Affordable housing and other market rate developers should find time and cost savings by being able to electronically submit and re-submit Site Plan Review applications, and building permit applications, as well as retrieve approved permits and corrections for permits. The approximate cost associated with all improvements is $80,000. 

City development primarily has been focused in the area just outside the city limits known as the Urban Develop Boundary. The city will be moving into the next rung of its development boundary in the next three years, which would open up more land to multi-family, affordable housing projects. Before that can happen, the city’s 2014 update of its General Plan requires the city to create and adopt an agricultural mitigation program to protect prime farmland from development in this next phase of growth. Staff has been working on a mitigation program since the 2014 update and would use approximately $150,000 to reimburse the city for staff time and/or consultant costs associated with preparing and adopting the program. 

Standards for developing ADUs, often referred to as guest houses, on developed residential lots have become more streamlined in recent years largely due to State legislature that seeks to encourage their development as a means of a smaller and more affordable housing option. Visalia has not seen any adverse impacts due to the streamlined changes, but conversely the changes have not resulted in an increase of ADU production in the city. Residents have voiced concerns over the high impact fees associated with a second unit, which are comparable to that of a new multi-family apartment within a new complex and higher than nearby jurisdictions. 

The city would use about $80,000 of the grant to fund two items that would reduce the cost of construction a guest house. The first is a fee study to predict if fees could be lowered without having a negative impact on public services funded by those fees. The second item would support the City in developing standardized floor plans and elevation templates for guest houses that could be pre-checked by the Community Development Department. The City of Clovis has recently implemented a similar program for “cottage homes” which has been met with much praise and success. 

All expenditures for the grant must be made by June 30, 2022.  

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