Housing Element Questions

The City has kicked off the process to update the next General Plan Housing Element. Every 8 years, California cities are required to update their Housing Element to plan for projected housing needs. Based on the current methodology for distributing projected housing needs in the Bay Area to the different jurisdictions in the region, Saratoga may need to plan for over 1,700 new housing units to be built in Saratoga between 2023 and 2031. As part of the engagement process, community members have submitted questions related to the Housing Element. Commonly asked questions and answers are below. 

Housing Element Update Resources

Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA)

Is the City’s RHNA based on current or projected housing needs?

The RHNA is based on unmet and projected housing needs. Before Housing Elements are updated the State makes projections for housing needs throughout California. After the State allocates each region’s housing needs, the total number of housing units projected to be needed at each income level are distributed among the jurisdictions in the region by a regional planning organization.

In the Bay Area, the methodology for distributing the projected housing needs is set by the Association of Bay Area Governments or ABAG. On April 12, ABAG’s methodology was approved by the State. In May 2021, ABAG announced draft RHNA allocations for each Bay Area jurisdiction. Saratoga and 27 other jurisdictions have appealed their allocations. ABAG’s final decision is expected in November or December 2021.

Were the impacts of COVID-19 considered in housing projections and allocations?

No, COVID-19 was not considered in housing projections and allocations to jurisdictions. In December 2020, Mayor Yan Zhao submitted a letter to ABAG requesting that the projections be revisited, since it was becoming clearer and clearer that impacts of COVID-19 would cause a shift in the population of the Bay Area and Santa Clara County. Despite the protests of Mayor Zhao and many other cities, no significant changes were made to account for COVID-19.

Did ABAG consider that roughly half of the City of Saratoga is located in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) when determining the City’s RHNA allocation?

Yes. ABAG’s methodology considered that roughly half of Saratoga is in areas designated by the State as at an elevated risk for wildfire. As a result, Saratoga saw a decline in its preliminary RHNA allocation from more than 2,100 new units to just over 1,700 new units before the methodology was finalized and draft RHNA numbers were officially announced. However, the City does not believe the ABAG methodology adequately accounts for the lack of land suitable for urban development due to wildfire risks and has cited this as one factor in its appeal of the ABAG allocation.

Can Saratoga give some of its RHNA allocation to another city?

One jurisdiction may agree to accept RHNA unit allocations from another jurisdiction in the same county if approved by the State. However, cities that take on additional units on behalf of another city often require something in exchange for the trade. Additionally, every city in California is struggling with the challenge of planning for their 2023-2031 RHNA. For example, San Jose is expecting to be required to plan for more than 62,000 new units.

Can Saratoga appeal its RHNA allocation?

Yes. The City Council filed an appeal of its RHNA allocation, on the grounds the allocation failed to account for the lack of land suitable for urban development due to wildfire risks, incorrectly identified Saratoga as Transit-Rich Area, and did not consider the lack of available water for more than 1,700 new homes. ABAG received 28 appeals from Bay Area jurisdictions, which included 6 appeals from jurisdictions in Santa Clara County. These were submitted by Saratoga, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Palo Alto, and Unincorporated Santa Clara County. The public can submit comments on appeals to RHNA@bayareametro.gov until August 30.

How are affordability ranges defined? 

The income levels are based on the Area Median Income (AMI), which the State determines annually for each county. The 2020 AMI for Santa Clara County is $151,300 for a four-person household. The thresholds for the different income levels for a four-person household are listed below:

  • Very Low Income: Less than $82,850
  • Low Income: $82,850 to $117,750
  • Moderate Income: $117,750 to $181,550
  • Above Moderate Income: More than $181,550

Who is responsible for determining the RHNA allocations?

Based on growth projections from the State Department of Finance, the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), in partnership with a Council of Governments for each region, determines housing needs within each of the 18 regions in the State. Each Council of Government for the different regions is then responsible for divvying up the housing allocation among all the jurisdictions within that region. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is the Council of Government that represents the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma.

How can Saratoga residents influence RHNA allocations in the future?

Residents can reach out to their State representatives to share their thoughts and proposed changes to the Housing Element and RHNA process. Find contact information for Saratoga’s State representatives at www.saratoga.ca.us/legislation

How many housing units are there currently in Saratoga?

There are approximately 10,880 housing units currently in Saratoga.

Learn More

Read more about the Regional Housing Needs Allocation at www.saratoga.ca.us/rhna 

Housing Element Requirements

How will the City plan for and provide housing units at the different RHNA income levels? Given property values in Saratoga, how would it be financially viable for a developer to build affordable units here?

The Housing Element is required to consider constraints to development, such as land cost. However, the State does not consider land costs when making RHNA allocations. When reviewing the draft Housing Elements for cities like Saratoga, the State assumes that increasing density increases the affordability of new housing units. Developments of 20 or more units per acre can count towards accommodating below-market housing for the purpose of preparing an adequate Housing Element. Additionally, the State will likely allow cities to count Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as low or very low-income units.

Where will the City find space to add more than 1,700 new housing units when we are already below the current Housing Element Cycle’s RHNA allocation of 439 housing units?

A key component of the Housing Element is the Housing Sites Inventory. The Housing Sites Inventory from the previous cycle includes space for the 439 units allocated at that time. The new Housing Sites Inventory will need to identify specific sites in Saratoga that are suitable and available to develop the more than 1,700 residential units; these will likely include many of the sites included in the existing inventory.  State laws have tightened parameters for including housing opportunity sites that were identified in a prior Housing Element cycle, but not developed into housing. To be reused, vacant sites must be zoned at 20 units per acre and be subject to by-right approval. For non-vacant sites, such as those referenced, the City must present substantial evidence that the contemplated development will actually occur in the planning period.

In the development of the Housing Sites Inventory, the City will also identify vacant and underutilized lots, new housing units that are currently in the pipeline and planned for development, and new Accessory Dwelling Units that are expected to be built in the next 8 years based on recent production numbers. These can all be counted towards the Housing Sites Inventory.

Following the guidance of the State, a buffer is then added to units to ensure that sufficient capacity exists and can be accommodated throughout the planning period.

From the Housing Sites Inventory, the City will determine how many units at each of the affordability levels are still needed, then specific sites in the City will be identified to meet the RHNA through the Housing Element.

The community will help select these sites through meetings with the Planning Commission and other participation opportunities this fall.  Following that community engagement process, the Planning Commission will make recommendations to the City Council, which will provide the final direction on site selection.

Could the Housing Element include policies that call for relaxing building code or permit requirements to meet the 2023 to 2031 RHNA allocation? For example, could rules related to protected trees be relaxed to allow for more housing units on private property? Or could requirements for historical homes be impacted?

City Code changes that help encourage development of higher density or affordable units could be considered. Currently, the City Code does allow for removal of protected trees for the purpose of new developments. However, the City would not be able to relax construction standards. The Building Code is adopted by the State to help ensure buildings are built in a safe manner and the City would not be able to comprise building safety to increase housing development. Additionally, while it is possible to reduce requirements or standards for properties that are designated as historic landmarks, the amount of housing that could be developed as a result would be small.

Are there Saratoga-based developers that can help the City add more than 1,700 new housing units while also working with the community in the development process?

When the City receives a development application, the City works with the developer to ensure that the application is compatible with City development standards and community values. The biggest exception to this would be applications submitted under Senate Bill (SB) 35, which are exempt from our normal public review and hearing process and must be approved within a very short timeframe based on objective standards. While the City is working to strengthen our objective standards, the standards that help a new large-scale development mesh with community priorities are predominately subjective and impossible to define in the manner required to qualify as an objective standard.

Does the City have to meet the goal of more than 1,700 new units through new housing construction or would the addition of room rentals/partial home rentals count towards this number?

The City is required to plan for the addition of more than 1,700 newly constructed housing units. The addition of rooms available or sections of the home made available to rent does not count towards the RHNA. However, accessory dwelling units within a home’s existing structure, as well as freestanding accessory dwelling units, would count towards the number.

Do new senior housing developments or student dorms count towards the more than 1,700 new housing units the City will need to plan for?

To be counted towards the RHNA, new housing units must meet the Census definition of separate living quarters. This means that units must allow for eating and living separately from the broader community. Beds in a dependent living facility and traditional dorm rooms would not be counted towards the RHNA.

What happens if the City fails to update its Housing Element?

Jurisdictions that do not adopt a Housing Element in compliance with Housing Element Law are subject to severe penalties. These include reducing their say over future development, including building permits, subdivisions, and use permits. This means the City might not have decision making authority over things like the Marshall Lane subdivision that will be considered by the Planning Commission soon.

Local governments with noncompliant Housing Elements will also be vulnerable to litigation from developers, housing rights organizations, and HCD. If the City lost a case, it would have to pay the substantial attorney fees for both sides. Additionally, the state recently adopted legislation that if a City is not in compliance, the courts can impose fines of between $10,000 to $100,000 per month, and the Courts can even multiply the financial penalties by 6.

Additionally, certain state funding programs require a compliant Housing Element in order for cities to be eligible to apply. Without a certified Housing Element, the City could lose potential grant funds for critical infrastructure, like roads.

What happens if builders don’t want to construct new housing in Saratoga?

If developers and property owners fail to construct new housing in alignment with RHNA targets, the City could be subject to requirements of Senate Bill (SB) 35. This State law provides that in cities and counties where development is not on track to meet projected housing needs are subject to by-right approvals of qualifying multi-family residential projects. This is true regardless of the reason that projects have not been built, such as high construction costs, and even if a jurisdiction has approved every project that has been proposed. There is no discretionary review or public input process for these projects. And this is all required to happen on an accelerated time frame.

Will all parts of the City that are currently zoned as single-family residential get converted to multifamily?

At this time, there are no plans to convert all neighborhoods zoned as single-family residential to multifamily. The City will be working with the community to identify ways that it can plan to add more than 1,700 new homes to Saratoga.

Note that the State legislature is considering legislation (Senate Bill 9) that would require all cities to allow at least two homes on each parcel in a single-family zone; the City has strongly opposed this legislation. View City Council positions on proposed legislation at www.saratoga.ca.us/legislation

Subscribe to the Housing Element Newsletter to get notified when meeting dates to discuss community priorities and values are scheduled.

Are there City properties that can be turned into housing/community recreation space, like the Saratoga Prospect Center?

The City will strive to maintain a balance of recreation and open spaces when planning for the additional new homes and will be working with the community to identify where they would like to see new housing in Saratoga.

Do units that are permitted but not built count towards RHNA goals?

The State requires the City to provide an annual progress report to demonstrate progress towards meeting RHNA goals. The total number of units with building permits to begin construction, along with anticipated income levels, is included in the report.

Is the City planning to allow residential development at Argonaut? Will the City need to allow more than 2 stories to allow for increased housing density?

While there are no plans at this time to allow residential development at Argonaut, one of the difficult conversations the City will hold with the community in the coming months is how to plan for Saratoga’s RHNA allocation while also preserving grocery stores, restaurants, and other commercial businesses that are important to our day to day lives. If residential development is allowed on these commercial parcels, the number of allowable stories may also need to be increased to meet density thresholds needed to meet RHNA affordability targets.

Subscribe to the Housing Element Newsletter to get notified when meeting dates to discuss community priorities and values are scheduled.

Will the City increase housing density in the Village to meet its RHNA allocation?

There have been comments from the community both in support of and against adding housing to the Village. Currently, the Village is the area of Saratoga with the highest concentration of multi-family housing, so the community will need to have further conversations about to take the Village when discussions of specific housing locations begin in the fall.

Will I be required to split my lot?

No. If the zoning on your property is changed as part of this Housing Element update, you would be allowed to split your lot only if you choose to do so.

Could the City look at ways to provide affordable housing for particular individuals, like teachers?

Yes, the City could look at programs and policies that seek to provide housing for teachers or other workforce segments.

How can I help and get involved?

Visit the City website at www.saratoga.ca.us/housing and do the following:

  • Subscribe to the Newsletter: Sign up to receive the Housing Element Newsletter on the City website so you never miss an update throughout the process.
  • Tell your Neighbors: Tell your neighbors and friends in the community about the Housing Element update process. Make sure that they have signed up to the Housing Element newsletter.
  • Host a Meeting with your Neighbors: Visit the City website to invite the City to a meeting with your neighbors to share more about the Housing Element. These meetings can be as simple as a Zoom meeting, the City is also happy to join you in your living room or in a nearby part for a meeting with your neighbors.
  • View Housing Element Resources: Watch a series of Housing Element videos and read the Housing Element Questions/Answers on the City website to get more familiar with the Housing Element. Share any questions you may have using a form on the City website.

Could the City plan to locate higher density housing along Prospect Road and Lawrence Expressway near the El Paseo shopping Center?

Yes, but this part of the City has been designated as a housing opportunity site in past Housing Elements. State laws have tightened parameters for including housing opportunity sites that were identified in a prior Housing Element cycle, but not developed into housing. To be reused, vacant sites must be zoned at 20 units per acre and be subject to by-right approval. For non-vacant sites, such as those referenced, the City must present substantial evidence that the contemplated development will actually occur in the planning period.

What is the Housing Element update timeline?

In February 2021, the City Council directed staff to begin community engagement on the Housing Element as soon as possible. In March, the City started this with an effort to raise community awareness of the Housing Element mandate and prepare residents for discussions on their values related to Housing.

June marked the start of a conversation with the community about priorities and values. The City will affirm its understanding of the community’s priorities before drafting the Housing Element, identifying possible specific locations for housing, and crafting policy options to plan for more than 1,700 homes for people across income levels in Saratoga.

In the fall, the Planning Commission will hold public meetings about the Housing Element, and the City will offer additional participation options. The Planning Commission will then make a recommendation to the City Council. The City Council will consider information gathered in the public engagement process and the Planning Commission’s recommendation, then provide direction on the preparation of a formal draft of the Housing Element for public review and environmental analysis.

In Fall 2022, the City Council will review the draft Housing Element and Environmental Impact Report and provide further direction to staff. In Winter 2022, the City Council will adopt a Housing Element so it can be submitted to the State for approval by January 2023.

What zoning changes are likely to be enacted?

The specific strategies and sites that will be used to plan for the addition of more than 1,700 new homes in Saratoga have not yet been determined. These will be decided based on community priorities identified in conversation with the Planning Commission and City Council. Some of the considerations and factors to be considered, include:

  • Preserving Single-Family Neighborhood Character: The City could help preserve the existing character of Saratoga neighborhoods by steering increased development and density towards the City’s arterial roads, such as Saratoga Avenue, Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road, and Prospect Road.

    Additionally, The City could increase the total possible number of single-family homes by allowing larger lots to be subdivided. If homeowners choose to subdivide their property and additional homes are built, this would help the City reach above moderate income RHNA targets. Depending on the outcome of proposed State legislation currently being considered, the City may be subject to State laws that would allow all single-family lots to be subdivided without discretionary review by the City.

    The City could adopt strategies that make it easier or incentivize construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). This would help the City reach very low and low income RHNA targets.

    The City could adopt strategies that allow single-family lots to be converted into duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. Depending on the outcome of proposed State legislation currently being considered, the City may be subject to State laws that allow all single-family lots to be converted into duplexes without discretionary review by the City.

  • Limiting Growth in Hillsides/Wildland Urban Interface: Roughly half of Saratoga is in the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, the area of the City that is most at risk for wildfire. If growth in Saratoga's hillsides and areas at risk for wildfire is limited, that means increased housing density would only occur in the half of the City that is outside the Wildland Urban Interface. Because much of the Wildland Urban Interface is on steep slopes with geologic constraints, it may be difficult to significantly increase housing in this area in any event.

  • Increasing Allowable Stories/Height Limits: The State assumes that development at a density of 20 units or more per acre meets criteria for below market units. Accommodating developments at this density may require 3 to 5 stories or more depending on the size of the site. The City may need to increase height limits in parts of Saratoga to reach very low, low, and moderate income RHNA targets.

  • Commercial Properties: Commercial locations would include office complexes as well as shopping centers. The City could make an effort to retain the remaining retail businesses at commercial locations like Argonaut shopping center by planning for housing elsewhere, or Saratoga could plan for housing at commercial locations in a way that complies with State-mandates and allows commercial uses to remain. One strategy to retain commercial businesses while adding residential housing units is mixed-use projects. Mixed use projects include commercial businesses on the ground level and apartments or condominiums above. However, to make mixed-use projects feasible, they often require multiple stories to allow both commercial and residential uses. This conflicts with the City’s current practice of generally limiting buildings to 2 stories.

  • Affordable Housing Requirements: As part of the Housing Element update, the City needs to consider creating programs and policies to help low-income individuals and families. For example, the City could require developers to include affordable units as part of new housing development projects. 

How do I share my thoughts on State Housing Element requirements with my State representatives?

Residents can reach out to their State representatives to share their thoughts and suggest proposed changes to the Housing Element and RHNA process. Find contact information for Saratoga’s State representatives at www.saratoga.ca.us/legislation

How will the City seek community input on proposed Housing Element policies and housing sites?

The City will use a variety of strategies to get input from the community on proposed Housing Element policies and housing sites. Sign up for the Housing Element newsletter at www.saratoga.ca.us/housing to get notified about future opportunities to participate in the update process.

Will housing units in development projects that are proposed or approved, but not constructed yet, be counted toward the City’s 2023-2031 RHNA?

The State allows the City to count new housing units that are planned and approved, but not yet constructed, towards the 2023-2031 RHNA.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit or Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit?

An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is an attached or detached residential unit that provides complete independent living facilities, including a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. A Junior ADU is no larger than 500 square feet and is contained entirely within a single-family home or accessory structure. It may include its own bathroom or share with the existing home.

Learn more at www.saratoga.ca.us/adu

Do Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) count towards the RHNA allocation?

Yes. ADUs do count towards the RHNA allocation. The State will likely allow cities to count ADUs as low or very low-income units.

Can the City plan to add more than 1,700 new ADUs to meet RHNA goals?

No. The City is required to plan for a variety of housing types across all income levels.

Can the City make it easier for homeowners to add ADUs to their property?

In 2020, the City amended its standards to make it easier for residents to construct ADUs. For example, homeowners can build an 800 square foot ADU in excess of their maximum allowable floor area and site coverage limits. Also, new ADUs that meet development standards and setback requirements can be constructed with a building permit, and no public hearing is required.

Can 2 ADUs be located on the same property?

Yes. An attached or detached ADU, as well as a Junior ADU, may be constructed on the same parcel.

What is the difference between an ADU and a duplex?

A duplex is a multi-family home with two living units attached to each other in the same building, either side by side or on top of each other. They have separate entrances, and there is no interior connection between the units. Accessory Dwelling Units can be attached or detached, limited to 1,200 square feet, and are intended to be subordinate in size and design to the main residence.

Learn More

Read more about Accessory Dwelling Units at www.saratoga.ca.us/adu 

Environmental Review

Was the State or Association of Bay Area Governments required to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the RHNA housing allocations?

No. State Housing Law states that Regional Housing Needs Allocations are not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, and therefore, no Environmental Impact Reports are required to assign the allocations.

Will the City prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Housing Element?

Yes. The Draft EIR is expected to be circulated for public review in 2022.

Does the City need to consider impacts on the community, like increased traffic or whether local schools can accommodate the addition of more than 1,700 new housing units?

Yes. The City does need to evaluate the impacts of adding more housing. Once the RHNA allocation is finalized in winter 2021, the City will begin drafting the 2023 to 2031 Housing Element. When a draft is complete, the City will prepare an EIR on the draft Housing Element.

In the EIR process, the City is required to evaluate impacts, such as schools, fire service, sanitation, or traffic impacts. If there are anticipated impacts to these public services, then the City also needs to identify how these impacts will be mitigated, if possible.

If more housing is built in Saratoga, would new schools need to be built to accommodate an increase in families?

Developers may be required to pay fees to address anticipated impacts to a community, such as the costs for building new facilities or improving infrastructure.

Are water supplies sufficient to add more than 1,700 new homes to Saratoga?

The State requires the City to plan for housing even if water availability is an issue. If the Environmental Impact Report conducted by the City identifies there may be a water supply issue, then the City will need to identify strategies to reduce water consumption.

The City will reach out to both Valley Water (water wholesaler) and San Jose Water District (water retailer) to determine if those agencies have enough water supply to serve the addition of more than 1,700 new homes. To date, no concerns have been expressed.

Will the public transportation system be expanded to accommodate more than 1,700 new homes?

Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) would be responsible for changes to public transportation services as a result of an increase in households in Saratoga. In recent years, the City has seen a decline in the level of public transportation services provided to Saratoga residents.

Will an increase in population impact safety?

The City is required to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to evaluate a wide array of impacts to the community, such as public safety services, and how they will be mitigated. If environmental impacts are identified, such as traffic increases, then the need for additional public services, such as police and fire, will also be identified in the EIR.

Will the addition of more than 1,700 new homes impact property values in Saratoga?

It is difficult to predict how changes may affect property values as many things can influence the market value of residential property. Saratoga is very fortunate to be served by high quality schools and to be located along the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. The type of single-family homes built here in the last few decades are no longer being built, which reduces their supply for the growing population in the region.

City Council, Planning Commission, and State

Why is the City Council planning to add more than 1,700 more housing units in Saratoga?

The City Council didn’t make this choice. State law requires each California jurisdiction to plan for future housing needs and provided projected housing needs for the entire State and each region within the State. The Association of Bay Area Governments then developed the methodology for assigning these units to cities and counties in the Bay Area pursuant to state law.

Has the City considered joining other cities in suing the State to reduce housing demands?

To date, no Bay Area cities have sued the State. Most recently, the State was sued by private groups on the grounds that the number of units allocated to the Bay Area was too low.

The City Council did file an appeal of its RHNA allocation, arguing that the allocation failed to account for the lack of land suitable for urban development due to wildfire risks, incorrectly identified Saratoga as Transit-Rich Area, and did not consider the lack of available water for more than 1,700 new homes.

What is the Planning Commission’s opinion on how the City will add more than 1,700 new housing units?

The Planning Commission held its first meeting on the Housing Element on April 13 to learn about the Housing Element update process and engagement efforts. Staff will report back to the Planning Commission and City Council at a Study Session on August 31 to share everything learned in the outreach process. The Commission will then begin its work on the Housing Element through the fall, and winter 2021, when the final RHNA allocation is assigned.

Is there a way to require Sand Hill Properties and other developers of Senate Bill (SB) 35 projects to make more than 10% of units affordable? Can the City require SB 35 developers to make 25% of units affordable?

SB 35 provides that cities and counties where development is not on track to meet their projected housing needs are subject to by-right approvals of qualifying multi-family residential projects. This means that there is no discretionary review or public input process for these projects. And this is all required to happen on an accelerated time frame. Saratoga is currently subject to SB 35 and proposed developments with at least 10% affordable units are eligible for streamlined approval. If the City were to adopt an ordinance requiring that a specific percentage of new development be affordable, that requirement – if higher than 10%  – would apply to all new projects including new SB 35 projects.

What can residents do if they are unhappy with State requirements to plan for more than 1,700 new homes and State legislation that seeks to promote housing development by reducing local control?

Every resident can reach out to their State representative to share their thoughts on housing. You can see positions that the Council has adopted on State legislation on the City website at www.saratoga.ca.us/legislation. Most recently, the Council has opposed Senate Bill 6 and Senate Bill 9, which aim to make it easier to develop new housing by reducing local control.

What is the scheduled start date of the Quito Village development? How long is the projected time period from start to end of construction?

Construction has not yet been scheduled and the City does not have an estimated start or completion date. For the most up to date information on that project, visit www.saratoga.ca.us/QuitoVillage