Residents voice thoughts, concerns over future housing in Visalia

City of Visalia receives public input through a workshop updating locals on city housing and general plans

VISALIA – As the city works to meet state mandates to bringing affordable housing to Visalia, city staff looked toward the community to understand resident expectations.

On Oct. 26, the city of Visalia held its first virtual workshop on updates to the city’s housing and general plan for the housing element, a state-mandated policy addressing housing issues in California. The workshop was hosted by Ryan Lester, housing lead for the city’s consultant team Mintier Harnish, who conducted a community poll among participants so the city can better understand the community’s experience with housing in Visalia and take steps to improve it.

Although there was only a small fraction of participants for the nine-question survey, with 17 respondent answers at most and 12 at minimum. Survey results indicated that 64% respondents believe the city needs more affordable homes available for purchase. The answer tied with the need for emergency, transitional and supportive housing for those who need it. 

Additionally, 67% of respondents said the largest barrier to accessing housing in Visalia is few options for rent or sale, with cost of rent coming in second at 58%. Also, 58% of respondents said they are open to the idea of new housing in their own neighborhoods to address the housing shortage in the city.

According to Brandon Smith, principal planner for the community development department, survey results will help city staff as they draft up implementation programs to address housing concerns and issues in Visalia. The programs will be implemented by the city over the course of eight years, with some programs potentially being utilized within the first year or two of the housing element’s adoption, which is in December 2023.

“By April 2023, we should have a public draft housing element available that will contain draft versions of these programs for the public to review and comment on,” Smith said.

Anyone not able to attend the workshops who is interested in taking the survey can participate at the project’s website, where survey links can be found on the home page. The survey is available in both English and Spanish. According to Smith, the survey could potentially be taken down by the end of the year, so Visalia residents are strongly encouraged to participate.

In addition to survey results, residents also addressed concerns during the workshop’s discussion period, drawing attention to issues of transportation, homelessness and water, in particular. A handful of participants said the city should consider improving walkability in neighborhoods, as well as transit and biking services to make the city more environmentally friendly as well as reduce parking space in order to make room for additional housing.

A few residents also addressed the issue of water distribution at these houses. One workshop participant said the city needs to inform officials with the state of California about community concerns when it comes to water, since the Central Valley is vulnerable to drought.

“Until they figure out how they’re going to get water to us, we can’t begin to think affordable housing is going to be sustainable,” the participant said. “Somebody has to pay those water bills. It’s expensive and it’s getting worse.”

Another participant prompted the issue of homelessness in Visalia, asking where homeless residents can go and how this project will help. Lester said the city is evaluating this as a part of the housing element but there are no answers to be given right now.

The housing element is currently in the second phase of its lifespan, which Lester said is data gathering and analysis. In addition to the virtual workshop, the next steps of phase two also include interviews with stakeholders interested in the project, a second housing technical advisory committee (HTAC) meeting, a second community workshop for site selection and a joint study session between project workers, Visalia Planning Commission and Visalia City Council to review the project’s progress.

The housing element is one of eight elements in the city’s general plan, which sets the groundwork for a community’s long-term vision as it progresses. Lester said elements are where city goals, policies and programs are found. 

Housing element updates must be adopted by cities on an eight-year schedule and must plan for eight-years going forward. The element identifies current and future housing needs, opportunities and barriers on housing production, establishes an action plan to meet community needs and provides updates to city practices and regulations to reflect new state laws.

The element’s goals focus on conserving and improving existing affordable housing, maximizing housing opportunities throughout the community, assisting in providing affordable housing, removing barriers on housing investment and promoting fair and equal housing opportunities in cities.

“The housing element is a little different because it’s the only one that needs to be certified by the state,” Lester said. “It’s the only one that’s required to have updates on a specific schedule prescribed by the state.”

The city’s housing needs are determined through the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). Through RHNA, the city must ensure there’s enough land in the right zoning to accommodate allocation for housing through the housing element.

A recent addition to the housing element includes Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), which works to identify fair housing issues in communities. This includes things like combating housing discrimination, eliminating racial bias, undoing historic patterns of segregation and lifting barriers that restrict housing access.

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