Orinda Adopts Sixth Cycle of the Housing Element

(Jeff Heyman, Photographer)
Downtown Orinda, as seen from the Orinda Grove development, a 73-lot subdivision on 11 acres with adjacent 3.1-acre city-owned sports fields. The 2023-2031 Housing Element allows the construction of 2,000 housing units in Orinda over eight years.

    After three draft proposals, numerous city council meetings and more than a year of planning, Orinda has approved its 2023-2031 Housing Element. It allows the construction of more than 2,000 new housing units over the next eight years – a potential 30% increase to the current housing supply.
    Approved Jan. 31, the plan is meant to satisfy Orinda’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). Happening every eight years, the RHNA process determines how many units California cities and counties must plan for to meet the state’s overall housing needs.
    As of Feb. 20, Orinda’s housing element, adopted by the city council, is pending approval from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the agency in charge of implementing the state’s housing policies.
    California Mandates Statewide Plan for Increased Housing
    For the 2023-2031 RHNA cycle, Orinda is obligated to a minimum of 1,359 units, 587 of which must be affordable to lower-income households. The 2014 to 2022 RHNA cycle required the city to plan for 227 units. This nearly 500% current increase is part of the state’s strategy to address its acute housing crisis.
    The Golden State has the “least affordable housing in the U.S.,” according to HCD. More than a third of households in the state are cost-burdened, meaning they are paying over a third of their income toward housing. Stemming from a lack of supply to address this problem, the HCD’s statewide plan concludes 2.5 million new homes need to be built by 2031.

A Goal of More Equitable Housing
    The plan prioritizes fair housing, acknowledging past practices such as redlining – which barred people of color from buying homes in certain communities by denying mortgages – have created racially and economically segregated communities. As a result, HCD exhorts local jurisdictions to develop housing elements which tackle inclusion head on, a directive reflected in Orinda’s housing plan.
    With an annual median household income of greater than $200,000 and more than 70% of residents identifying as white as of 2019, Orinda’s planning document describes the town as a “racially concentrated area of influence” – a reality stemming from the community’s history of discriminatory policies.
    Orinda’s housing element states, “While the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made government-sponsored redlining and racially restrictive covenants illegal, Orinda’s racial/ethnic demographics over the latter half of the 20th century is reflective of the impact of exclusionary practices.”
    With this history in mind, Orinda’s higher housing obligation during this RHNA cycle can be seen not only as helping address California’s lack of housing, but also making the city more diverse.
    “By creating more opportunities for housing that provide different price options, that increases the pool of people who can afford Orinda and who can make Orinda a choice,” said Mayor Inga Miller.
    The units proposed in the housing element are located across the city. Some locations are already in line with local zoning rules and others require additional planning before construction can begin. Two areas collectively contain over 600 of the city’s 2000-plus unit proposals: downtown and the Caltrans Gateway, an unused tract of land owned by California’s transportation department, Caltrans.

The Caltrans Location and Downtown Precise Plan
    Orinda has been in communication with Caltrans about incorporating the latter into the city to develop 200 lower-income housing units. Its distance from other parts of town and proximity to Highway 24 caused some community members to question the site’s viability. To address these concerns, the city said it will explore improving pedestrian walkways and bike trails and offering shuttle services to and from the Caltrans area.
    The Downtown Precise Plan, the city’s detailed outline for renovating its cultural center, was approved alongside the city’s housing element on Jan. 31. Beyond proposing policies to bring in new businesses, the plan outlines zoning changes to allow more densely populated housing.
    These new zoning rules, allowing more residential development, have yet to be adopted. According to a 2021 study commissioned by the planning department, they could increase the economic performance of downtown business through increased foot traffic.
    Reflecting on the merits of Orinda’s housing element at the city council meeting, Vice Mayor Darlene Gee said, “The work we have done is an incredible, good-faith effort to balance enormous amounts of needs, wants and hopes for the community. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but you cannot let perfect get in the way of very good – and this is very good.”

Tristan Shaughnessy can be reached at tristan.c.shaughnessy@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.