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Guest Opinion | Philip Burns, Margaret Muñoz, Ed Washatka: Pasadena’s Draft 2021 Housing Element – Has Lofty Goals, Lacks Concrete Steps

Published on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 | 1:15 pm

The long-awaited draft of the Housing Element has finally been released by City Hall.  Every eight years, cities are required to update their Housing Elements (which are a part of each City’s General Plan).  The most controversial part of Housing Elements is that they are supposed to show that each city can accommodate building their share of new housing — including housing for very low, low and moderate income households. Housing Elements are also supposed to provide “a comprehensive blueprint for city housing policy.”


Pasadena’s Draft acknowledges the gravity of the housing crisis that has “created a housing market increasingly unaffordable to people of modest means, with lower-income households unable to find decent housing near their jobs or in the communities where their families have lived for generations,” noting this “threatens to dilute the richness of communities like Pasadena that benefit from diversity.”


The City has invested much time and money into preparing the Draft. Last September, City Council approved a $375,000 contract for consultants to help write it.  While the Draft was supposed to be turned into the State by July 1 for review, Pasadena is taking advantage of a “grace period” to slip the deadline.


The City also sought public comment on what should go into the Draft (which is included in Appendix D) and Mayor Victor Gordo appointed a 19-member Housing Task Force to provide advice as well. 


With that investment of money and time, the Draft is supposed to verify that Pasadena has planned for a total of 9,409 new housing units during the next eight years.  Considering that at last report, Pasadena only produced 2,589 new units in the last eight years, you would think the Draft would outline significant new approaches Pasadena will take to meet that goal.  It doesn’t. 


What’s more, the really difficult challenge is meeting the goals for “affordable” housing within the overall number.  Pasadena is supposed to plan for the construction of 2,739 new units set aside for very low households, 1,659 for low income and 1,562 for moderate income.  To provide context for the challenge of building 5,950 affordable units over the next eight years, you should know that at last report the City only saw 247 units of new affordable units built during the last eight years.  Yes, that’s right – Pasadena’s legal responsibility (the City lost its appeal of these numbers) is to plan for 24 times as much affordable housing by 2029 as it produced during the previous Housing Element cycle. 


So again, you would think the Draft Housing Element would have some innovative and serious ideas about how to accomplish that requirement.  Again, “it doesn’t.”


The Plan’s 69 pages outlines lots of lofty language describing how committed the City is to being a place everyone can afford.  But when it comes to the key “implementation steps” the Plan turns out to be just “more of the same.”


Fully 25 of the action steps outlined in the Draft are to “continue” what the City is already doing.  Where it proposes new action steps, they are either so modest or so vague as to be essentially useless.  For example, since Pasadena has an aging housing stock and many residents live in unsafe dwellings, the City commits to a program to rehab substandard homes — at the rate of “eight per year”  — in a city of 141,000!


Most of the other specific commitments are for such things as applying for Federal money, complying with State law and implementing previously adopted plans.  One of the few specific new action steps is to “create standards and a review process for the establishment of affordable housing via a Religious Institution Housing Ordinance or other zoning approach.” This proposal for allowing churches to build affordable housing on excess land was actually scheduled to go to the Planning Commission in March, but was pulled from the agenda at the last minute.  Now it’s scheduled to be considered “by 2025.”


Of course, the Draft does give attention to some new proposals.  It will “investigate” several of them.  It will also “explore,” “seek,” “pursue,” “consider,” “review,” “re-evaluate,” and “study” various notions.  In exhausting the Thesaurus to find all the ways to express non-action, it is surprising the Draft does not also call on the City to “ponder” possible solutions. 


The City has known for eight years that it must revise its Housing Element. The Southern California Association of Governments, which allocates housing targets for each city adopted their formula back in March 2020.  There was plenty of time to “investigate,” “explore” and otherwise “study” ways to meet the housing crisis, given the City has its own Housing Department, had ample consulting help and received specific ideas from the public and Housing Task Force on what should be done.


Because the Draft Housing Element is behind schedule, there will be just one hearing before the Planning Commission and one meeting for the Housing Task Force to comment before the Draft is presented to the City Council for approval. 


In the year 2000, the City Council adopted the following Housing Policy:

“All Pasadena residents have an equal right to live in decent, safe, and affordable housing in a suitable living environment for the long-term well-being and stability of themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and their community. The housing vision for Pasadena is to maintain a socially and economically diverse community of homeowners and renters who are afforded this right.”


Tonight, thousands of Pasadenans will go to sleep worrying about their housing security – and hundreds more will have no place to sleep at all. It’s not enough to “continue” to fail to address their needs.  It’s time to “re-evaluate” the Draft Housing Element and for the City Council to adopt one that will actually take concrete steps to fulfill the admirable Housing Policy adopted in 2000.


Philip Burns, AICP, Urban Planner

Margaret Muñoz, Urban Planner

Ed Washatka, Co-chair of Pasadenans Organizing for Progress’s (POP!) Housing Justice Sub-committee

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