Housing Element Glossary


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. 

Learn more about the Housing Element Update and how you can participate in the process.


Here are some of the most common terms you will hear throughout the Housing Element update process. You can also watch a video version of the Housing Element glossary to get the A to Z of the update process.

General Plan: A City’s long-term policy document that provides guidance to manage its physical, social, and economic resources. The General Plan identifies the community’s shared vision for the future, and it addresses that City’s unique character and needs. All of this information is used as the foundation for decisions that affect future growth and development. General Plans must address 7 different elements, which are like different chapters that focus on specific topics.  

Housing Element: One of the 7 State-mandated elements of a local General Plan and is the blueprint for future housing development. It assesses the existing and projected housing needs of all economic segments of the community, identifies potential sites adequate to provide the amount and kind of housing needed, and contains adopted goals, policies, and implementation programs for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing. Under State law, Housing Elements must be updated every eight years. Projected housing needs across California are determined by the State. 

Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA): A requirement of State housing law and is a process that determines projected housing needs for all Cities and Counties in California. The process to determine a RHNA allocation is conducted every eight years. Every jurisdiction must plan for its RHNA allocation in its Housing Element to ensure zoning regulations and potential housing sites can accommodate their allocation. 

Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG): The regional Council of Governments for the San Francisco Bay Area. This includes the counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, and Sonoma. The Association of Bay Area Governments is responsible for crafting a methodology to divvy up the housing needs among all of the jurisdictions within this region and assigning each City and County with its RHNA.  

California Department of Housing and Community Development (HDC): Reviews every local government’s Housing Element to determine whether it complies with state law, then submits feedback. HCD’s approval is required before a local government can adopt its Housing Element as part of its overall General Plan. Jurisdictions that fail to revise and submit their Housing Element to HCD may be left with very little say over all future development, from building permits to subdivisions and use permits. They may also be subject to financial penalties and loss of grant funds, such as those used for maintaining local roads.  

Consultant: Hired by Cities and Counties to help them prepare their Housing Element updates. Consultants typically prepare site inventories and suitability analysis, evaluate the effectiveness of past programs, draft the new Housing Element, and prepare environmental documents.  

Environmental Impact Report (EIR): A report to inform the community and a jurisdiction’s decision makers of significant environmental impacts of proposed projects, identify possible ways to minimize those effects, and describe reasonable alternatives to those projects. 

Inclusionary Housing: Policies that require or provide incentives to reserve a percentage of units in new market-rate developments for low- and moderate-income families. 

Income Levels: Based on the Area Median Income, which the State Department of Housing and Community Development determines annually for each county. Housing Elements are required to plan for housing for all income levels. For calendar year 2021, these income levels range from less than $82,850 to more than $181,550 for a four-person household using the current Area Median Income for Santa Clara County. 

Affordable Housing: Covers many different income levels and price ranges, but what makes housing affordable is the ratio of housing costs to household income. The California Department of Housing and Community Development has determined that a project can be considered affordable if there are a minimum of 20 units per acre. 

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU): Also known as granny flats, in-law units, backyard cottages, and secondary units. It is an attached or detached residential unit that provides complete independent living facilities, including a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. A Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit is no larger than 500 square feet and is contained entirely within an existing or proposed-single family home or accessory structure. It may include its own bathroom or share with the existing home. Promoting development of ADUs can be one solution to increasing the supply of affordable housing. However, the City cannot rely entirely on ADUs to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation.  

Developers and Property Owners: Their work has typically been what increases housing supplies. Developers purchase land, develop the building program and design, obtain the necessary public approval and financing, build the structures, and either sell or rent out and manage the housing. In recent years, there has been a shift in the way the State views Cities’ obligations related to their Housing Elements. Rather than viewing planning for housing as the responsibility of local governments and housing development as the responsibility of housing developers and property owners, the State has adopted new laws requiring Cities and Counties to take increased responsibility to ensure that the State-determined housing needs are built, in addition to planning for them in the Housing Element.  

Senate Bill 35 (SB 35): If developers and property owners fail to construct new housing in alignment with Regional Housing Needs Allocation targets, the City could be subject to the lower affordability thresholds of Senate Bill 35, often referred to as SB 35. This State law provides that in Cities and Counties where development is not on track to meet projected housing needs, qualifying multi-family residential projects are subject to by-right approvals. This means there is no discretionary review or public input process for these projects. This is all required to happen on an accelerated time frame. 

Site Inventory and Feasibility: These are also identified in the Housing Element update process. The Housing Element must identify specific sites that are appropriate and available for residential development during the planning period. If the sites require rezoning, they can still be included in the inventory, as long as the Housing Element includes a program to accomplish the rezoning concurrently with the Housing Element or prior to the start of the planning period. Preparing a site-feasibility analysis is the second step in addressing the adequate sites requirement. In addition to providing a list of sites, Cities must prepare an analysis that demonstrates which sites can accommodate housing needs at different income levels. 

Zoning: A tool that most Cities use to govern which uses are allowed in specific areas, like residential, commercial, or industrial. It also identifies the size of buildings, such as height and density, and how buildings relate to their surroundings, including other buildings, open spaces, and the street. 

Mixed-Use: Development projects that have housing as well as other uses, such as office or commercial, all integrated in a single building or on a single site. 

Height Limits: Define the maximum height new homes can be built, which can be defined in number of stories or in feet. 

Density: The number of residential units on a given piece of land. Examples of different densities include 1 unit per acre, 4 units per acre, or 20 units per acre. The higher number of units per acre, the higher the density. Higher levels of density can often be achieved on smaller lots by building up and allowing more stories to be built. Typically, homes on Cox Avenue in Saratoga are 4 units per acre, so lots are about 10,000 square feet, while homes in the hillsides are 2 acres minimum. Some of the most dense housing in Saratoga is located in the Village. 

Density Bonus: The development right under State law that requires local governments to allow additional residential units, additional building square footage, and other exceptions to development standards in exchange for the construction of affordable units under certain circumstances.