Clovis faces affordable housing dilemma

The city of Clovis is looking at a loss of over $2 million in state funds if it doesn’t meet affordable housing requirements. (Pixabay)

The city of Clovis stands to lose millions in state housing funds if it fails to meet Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) affordable housing numbers it agreed to for a previous cycle from 2006 to 2013.

In 2006, Clovis agreed—by way of then councilmember and now mayor Bob Whalen’s yes vote at Fresno COG (Council of Governments)—to accept responsibility for providing 15,195 units of housing of the county’s overall 52,141 required units allocated by the state. The 15,000-plus allocation for Clovis was outrageously disproportionate considering neighboring Fresno, five times the size of Clovis, only had to take on 21,000 units of the total.

At the time of the vote, Whalen, who was filling in for the mayor at the time, had no idea of the consequences that could befall the city if the high RHNA numbers could not be met. Of course, no one could have predicted later legislation that would require Clovis to honor the numbers past the cycle or else face loss of funding.

Now, the city has a shortfall of 4,425 high-density—20 units to the acre or more—affordable housing units to contend with on top of its current RHNA (2014-2023), for which the city is only responsible for a manageable 6,328 units this time around.

While the city is on track for its current cycle, Heidi Crabtree, the city’s housing program coordinator, said meeting the unaccommodated need from the previous RHNA cycle is going to require the city to rezone properties for higher density. In many cases staff has looked at, rezoning will require general plan amendments.

One challenge the city has is its plan outlines two higher-density options, one that allows 15 to 25 units per acre, and another that allows for 25 to 43 units per acre. Very few projects, if any, come before the council in that 25 to 43 unit category, but the issue with the 15 to 25 range is that approving such a project would not satisfy the RHNA rezone requirement because the minimum number of units must be 20.

“A lot of the land we are using for the current cycle is zoned at high density which is 15 to 25, so it is meeting the definition by having the range that includes the 20 unit minimum,” Crabtree explained. “But, when it comes to the rezone program [to meet the carryover from 2006-2013], it has to be a minimum of 20 units per acre and we can no longer count land zoned as high density 15 to 25 units per acre.”

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the requirement for the city is these affordable housing units don’t necessarily have to be “affordable.” For RHNA, the definition of affordable is simply higher density, and has no basis in residents’ incomes.

“Whenever we talk about the RHNA, affordability is based on density so higher density is supposedly meant to meet a population with lower household incomes, and this is an important distinction to make,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said that in terms of true affordability, Clovis has done an excellent job in providing affordable housing for residents. Housing cost burden, she said, is considered a problem when households are paying more than 30 percent of their income in housing costs. Nationally, 33 percent of households do this. In Clovis, that number is 37 percent, but that is well below percentages across the state, with cities averaging 43 percent. Fresno, by comparison has 45 percent of its residents paying more than 30 percent of their household incomes toward housing costs.

Crabtree said Clovis also has a variety of homes at different price points. In Clovis, she said, the median household income is $64,640 a year. A household at that income can technically afford a monthly housing cost of $1,616, which using current mortgage and interest rates equates to a house that costs $280,000. As of March 9, Crabtree said there were 65 listings of homes for sale in Clovis in that price range, with the median home price in Clovis being slightly higher at $310,000.

No matter how affordable Clovis is by true definition, however, it’s not affordable according to the RHNA because units are not dense enough.

“It makes no sense,” City Manager Luke Serpa said. “In San Francisco, you could have a high rise high-end complex with a median price of $2 million a unit, but if it is over 20 units per acre it would meet the affordable housing requirement.”

The silver lining, however, is that current Clovis residents concerned about low-income apartment complexes popping up in their neighborhoods to meet this requirement have no need to fear.

Staff have expressed while time is of the essence in order to secure state housing dollars for the city, they don’t want to bring forward any plans that deviate substantially from the master plan or that don’t suit the Clovis way of life.

To meet the number, however, City Planner Bryan Araki said it’s going to take some creativity.

Some projects Araki said staff is looking at are overlay, mixed-use projects along Shaw Avenue and on the Sierra Vista Mall property. Of these, Shaw Avenue is most feasible because it is the only project Araki is looking at that doesn’t require a general plan amendment. However, there is another caveat to these projects—mixed-use overlay projects can only account for 50 percent of the unmet RHNA, so at least 2,212.5 of the 4,425 units must be zoned as residential only. This is where the city really faces a challenge because developers normally approach the city with these projects, not the other way around, so the city has little control unless it designates city owned property as high density residential.

One of the only properties the city currently has that it can consider rezoning this way is the property along Willow and Bullard currently being farmed by Fresno State agriculture, but this is a sentimental piece of land as the late councilmember Harry Armstrong had high hopes for it.

“Harry had a lot of passion about this property and not turning it into something undesirable or highly commercial,” Araki said. “But we do want to reach out to Fresno State and at least have a conversation to research whether they are looking for more land for student housing or something of that nature.”

Staff is also in preliminary discussions with Clovis Community Hospital, which has expressed a desire to construct some kind of housing element for long-term patients and/or their families. But, even if that project goes forward, it would only account for a small piece of that 4,000-plus unit pie.

Another avenue the city could pursue is annexing new properties from Fresno County that are currently prezoned and rezoning them as high density, but this too is normally developer driven. In order for the city to annex property without site plan reviews and tentative maps, it would have to reach a special agreement with the county.

“The county has amended their tax sharing agreement with a couple of cities, the most recent being Reedley, allowing them to rezone pre-zoned properties for RHNA purposes,” Araki said. “Of course, the problem with annexing properties is we would then have to serve them [with police, fire, water, sewer, etc.].” With county cooperation, Araki said the city would most likely consider going this route in the northwest area, but it is not something staff wants to do until other options are exhausted.

Whatever direction staff chooses to take, Clovis must meet the RHNA, Crabtree said, or risk being found out of compliance and unable to apply for state affordable housing funds, of which Clovis received $2.7 million in just the last five years.

“The city doesn’t really have a choice,” Councilmember Lynne Ashbeck said. “We’re sort of being held hostage by this housing requirement because the consequences are so significant.”