Kern and every municipality within its borders stands to lose a degree of local control over their housing approval processes after state officials concluded not even one government in the county has made sufficient progress toward permitting affordably priced homes and apartments.
A new report by the California Department of Housing and Community Development says all 11 cities in Kern, and the county itself, have work to do in meeting the housing needs of their poorest residents. It also says four local cities — California City, Maricopa, Ridgecrest and Shafter — failed to file a housing progress report as required by a 2017 state law.
The consequence of this lack of progress, as directed by 2017's Senate Bill 35, is the imposition of a "streamlined" permitting system for new housing at the city or county level. That new process will not override zoning and other building limitations but it does remove local discretion on what projects get approved.
Local governments appear to be in good company: The state said in a news release only 3 percent of California's 539 jurisdiction are on pace to meet the housing needs of all their residents, and just 5 percent are making sufficient progress to provide homes for their lower-income residents.
Bakersfield officials attributed the city's reported lack of progress to a shortage of local data on housing affordability. They said they are confident the city is living up to its housing obligations and noted the city has no authority to compel developers to build certain kinds of housing.
City Manager Alan Tandy said Bakersfield regularly sponsors and helps finance a variety of housing types and that, additionally, it is helping build $9 million worth of shelter for people who are homeless.
Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen said the state's plan to streamline Bakersfield's housing permitting system is likely to have minimal local impact because the city's existing system is mostly ministerial already.
"We're … doing everything we can and we're not worried about the streamlining," Kitchen said. She added the city is working with the Housing Authority of the County of Kern to contribute money toward construction of new affordable housing in east Bakersfield.
The housing authority's executive director, Stephen Pelz, acknowledged Kern has a substantial unmet need for affordable housing. While the county is working on bridging the gap, he said, the problem is much bigger than a single jurisdiction.
A basic "disconnect" driving the state's affordable-housing shortage, he said, is that home and rental prices are rising faster than household incomes. At the same time, legislative priorities in Sacramento are raising development costs, he said.
Removing layers of local review in the permitting process may actually be a good thing, he said, because it will increase certainty for developers and speed project approvals.
Pelz asserted the bureaucratic foot-dragging housing developers face elsewhere in the state isn't a problem in Kern, which he said is more welcoming to new construction.
"You can't take a year to approve something," he said of approval processes in other parts of California. "You need to move it along and you can't just pick it to death. … It kills projects.”
Under SB 35, municipalities and city governments deemed to have fallen behind in meeting their housing affordability goals are put in one of two classifications. These are defined by the kind of projects that will now face streamlined approval processes.
In Kern, all but one jurisdiction face streamlined approvals for projects composed of at least 10 percent affordable housing units. Only Wasco was placed in the more stringent classification of streamlined reviews in projects where affordable housing makes up at least 50 percent of the total units.