If Not There, Then Where?
If you think participatory budgeting is the hot new thing, wait till you hear about participatory housing elements

The City of Elk Grove's online tool to let residents create their own housing plan for the City.

October 28, 2020: California local governments are caught in a vise, squeezed between the need to house future residents as required by state law and having to answer to residents who don’t want more housing on a site in their neighborhood. As Elk Grove’s Director of Strategic Planning and Innovation Christopher Jordan put it in a recent SACOG housing series webinar, “We’re not seeing the forest for the trees because people tend to focus on sites they know.” 

The solution hit upon by the City of Elk Grove is to transform residents into housing planners. “We wanted our residents involved in the sites we will use to count towards RHNA in a more dynamic way than we usually do,” said Jordan. The tool that helped them achieve that is an online budgeting simulation called Balancing Act, which has mostly been used by cities in public engagement around city budgets. Elk Grove was the first city to adapt the tool for housing elements, said Brenda Morrison, a partner at Engaged Public, the firm behind Balancing Act, who joined Jordan’s webinar demonstration of the tool. The city “pushed us to use the platform in different ways,” she said, and that required some custom coding. She said the innovation was driven by ”Covid and the strain on city governments having staff thinking of new ways to communicate changes to the public.” 

The end result is a gamification of RHNA (Regional Housing Need Allocation) planning, where residents have to juggle site selection, allowable densities, and what percentage to set as the “buffer” of excess sites in order to come up with a housing plan. Participants can’t hit “submit” on their plans until they have allowed enough housing to meet the RHNA allocation. Some people have struggled with that requirement, complaining on feedback forms that they only wanted to comment about one particular site. That feedback is also helpful, said Jordan, so staff encourage those people to submit a comment via email. But making participants complete a housing plan makes them consider the trade-offs demanded by the process rather than just registering their opposition to a particular site. 

The housing tool has been live since the end of May and so far, has resulted in about 80 completed housing plans and lots of useful feedback from 1,179 pageviews. It will stay open until about March 2021, said Jordan. He said feedback from planning commissioners and city councilmembers was that they were “super appreciative to have a tool like this that puts residents in the same hot seat they’re going to be in next year, so everybody is feeling the pain together.” 

He also said some people had complained that the exercise oversimplified the housing planning process, making it seem as if site selection and density were the only factors. But he said the focus was appropriately on what had traditionally been the most contentious parts of the process. 

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