A 1-foot-wide piece of land? A tiny banana-shaped parcel? They were almost part of Orinda’s housing plan.
A 1-foot-wide sliver of land sandwiched between a road and a backyard pool. A “vacant” site next to a water sanitation building. A handful of minuscule parcels—one of them shaped like a banana, another a triangle—tucked behind single-family homes.
These were some of the most absurd examples of the properties Orinda tried to pass off as future housing sites, in its attempt to meet the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s lofty goal to build 1,359 units of housing by 2031.
They were among the 40 different sites that made the final draft of the city’s Housing Element inventory—and were reposted only six days before the state’s Jan. 31 deadline—before a campaign of ridicule from Twitter watchdogs and housing advocates on social media forced Orinda officials to drop them.
Kevin Burke, a local software developer who serves on the board of East Bay for Everyone, said he started flagging a handful of Orinda’s 300 proposed sites back in December. He posted the problems he found on Twitter, since he didn’t have time to look through the entire inventory for places that weren’t reasonably feasible to support development.
“But Kyle (Huey) actually did,” Burke said in a phone interview. “He told me he got mad enough to go through all of them.”
Local governments have been so successful in skirting laws and evading their fair share of new housing construction that state housing officials have assigned staff to specifically keep an eye on the worst-offending cities.
Most notably, elders in Woodside declared that the entire town was exempt from approving any new housing, because it was a habitat for endangered mountain lions, while any property in Sonoma that’s considered for construction of a new duplex must have at least three mature trees and 10 shrubs.
While Burke was not surprised to see yet another Bay Area city “try to play these kinds of games” to thwart state housing law, he said it is frustrating that it often takes public input—and even mockery—to try to make cities follow the rules.
“The fact that we were finding these means that no one from the city actually looked at these sites and thought that they were valid—and we’re not paid to do any of this,” Burke said. “This is really like time consuming work, but all we want is for them to just follow the spirit of the rules, instead of trying to do the minimum possible to get by.”
Those sites were initially considered because Contra Costa County tax records list them as “legal lots” that could be developed, and Orinda’s previous Housing Element had included them, too, according to Planning Director Drummond Buckley.
Since Orinda is a built-out hillside community, he said the remaining properties within city limits can be challenging to develop.
“Indeed, community participation—including the recent comments on the vacant parcels—has helped the city to improve the document,” Buckley said in an email. “Viewed in total, it offers a balanced approach to meeting the City of Orinda’s RHNA obligations for very-low, low, moderate, and above-moderate income units with a variety of sites in a range of geographic locations.”
Despite pushback from Burke, other Bay Area residents and community groups, including East Bay Housing Organizations, Bike East Bay and the Greenbelt Alliance, the Orinda City Council is expected to vote to adopt its 2023-2031 Housing Element before the state’s deadline—in the nick of time.
Across California, cities had until Tuesday to get their housing plans approved by the state, or risk missing out on crucial housing and infrastructure funding and potentially losing control over local zoning laws.
So far, just a handful of Bay Area cities—including Alameda, Emeryville, Redwood City and San Francisco—have received approvals. And most of the region’s 109 cities and counties appear likely to miss the deadline.
Some local governments, including San Jose, have said they had no intention of having their housing plans ready by this week. Others could be poised to argue that under California housing law, they don’t need state certification, as long as local officials adopted housing plans by Tuesday. More still have assumed they have a 120-day grace period before facing penalties. But the state housing department, in a letter to San Francisco in October, clarified its position that they do not.
Ahead of the vote during Orinda’s City Council meeting, Buckley was confident that the latest draft adequately addressed all of HCD’s comments, complied with state law and would be certified, especially after the city responded to two rounds of comments from HCD, and has held 25 public meeting since 2020.
“The Jan. 25 Revised Draft Housing Element is a plan that community members can be proud of,” Buckley wrote.
Despite getting the most ridiculous properties off the table, one location in Orinda’s Housing Element still poses a big concern for housing advocates.
The “Gateway” parcel is a 10-acre Caltrans property on the side of Highway 24, which the city is eyeing to build 200 units of low-income housing.
In addition to unanswered questions about pollution, transportation access and fire hazard zoning on the site, which is located at least a half-mile from any other housing and even further from amenities like grocery stores, Burke and others are worried that even if Caltrans decertifies the land, no developer would actually want to tackle the project.
If HCD gives the project a green light without additional safeguards to help ensure the land is actually developed, he said that would allow Orinda to promise on paper to build housing for hundreds of low-income families there, but effectively avoid any commitment.
“The 1-foot-wide parcel and stuff are good for the perspective that HCD can’t certify a document that has those in it, but it’s also our position that this kind of site isn’t really a feasible for housing, period,” Burke said. “On one hand, HCD has exceeded any of my expectations a year ago, but on the other hand—when you look at what’s actually in the law and in their own guidelines—a lot of times they fall short.”