As of 2020, San Mateo County has met 78 percent of its overall housing need for the 2015 to 2023 cycle of the state’s housing allocations. 

Yet more units have been built for households in the highest income category. Over 100 percent of housing needs have been met for the highest income category compared to 28 percent for the lowest income category.  

Every eight years, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the Association of Bay Area Governments assigns a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) for the Bay Area. The RHNA indicates the number of units required to meet housing needs in each county or city. 

San Mateo County has built or issued permits for 12,848 units out of the 16,418 total housing units required for the fifth RHNA cycle, which covers housing needs for 2015 to 2023. 

This is an improvement from 2017, when the Bay Area Equity Atlas reported that the county had met 34 percent of its housing needs for the current RHNA cycle. 

However, just as in 2017, less housing has been built so far for the lowest income households compared to the percent of housing built for the highest income households. 

As of 2020, the county had met 28 percent of the need for very low-income housing units, which are affordable to households making up to 50 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). Income categories are defined by how affordable they are for households depending on how much of the AMI they earn. 

Some cities are leading the charge on creating housing for low-income residents. East Palo Alto is one of six cities/towns that has met or exceeded its allocation for very low-income units.  

East Palo Alto has almost doubled its housing requirement for very low-income units, permitting or constructing 115 housing units out of the 64 units required in that category. 

Mayor Carlos Romero said the city’s affordable housing strategy targets very low and extremely low-income residents. It helps that there’s strong political will and community support for affordable housing. 

 “Those are the people who are truly suffering and have been suffering for decades, and we insist that we need to service that particular area,” Romero said. “They’re also the essential workers of this world, many, many of whom live in East Palo Alto and deserve a safe and decent place to live.” 

Romero said East Palo Alto is on track to meet its housing requirements in all categories. The city also has dedicated funding sources for affordable housing such as Measure HH, a parcel tax on commercial office space that generates an estimated $1.5 million annually for affordable housing and job training. 

This money supports nonprofit affordable housing developers, who cannot depend on market-rate rent to offset costs. 

“Every dollar that is not a grant or a deeply discounted loan is basically money that will come out of the tenant’s pocket to service the debt,” Romero said. 

In Daly City, local school districts have joined affordable housing efforts, according to Tatum Mothershead, Daly City’s director of Economic and Community Development. 

“A lot of school districts are starting to take these innovative approaches to attract and retain teachers and other educational faculty,” Mothershead said. “The Jefferson Elementary School District and the Jefferson Union High School District both came through the city process to get faculty housing.” 

The city has granted final approvals for two staff housing projects: 122 apartment units for the Jefferson Union High School District project and 56 units for the Jefferson Elementary School District. 

Cities and towns have taken various approaches to housing, from partnering with nonprofit housing developers to supporting the creation of accessible dwelling units or ADUs, which are secondary housing units attached to a residential property. 

Hillsborough, a higher-income small town with mostly single-family homes, has met its housing requirements for this cycle by promoting ADUs. Hillsborough’s 91 required units is a smaller allocation than the thousands of units that larger cities like San Mateo and Redwood City were given. 

Director of Hillsborough’s Department of Building and Planning Sarah Fleming said they continue to receive an influx of ADU applications, as “people are finally waking up to the reality that they can really easily build a ministerial ADU.” 

The ADUs may be used for a variety of reasons: for older residents to age in place while housing a caregiver; for families to house adult children who cannot otherwise afford to live in the Bay Area; or to house teachers which could help reduce teacher turnover. 

Like the rest of San Mateo County, Hillsborough is looking towards the future. In the upcoming cycle – RHNA 6 – they will need to build 554 housing units, more than six times their current allocation. Though final numbers will be released at the end of this year, the entire Bay Area region will likely need to build over 441,000 housing units, more than double its current allocation. 

To plan for the upcoming RHNA cycle, San Mateo County jurisdictions are hosting a series of “Let’s Talk Housing” meetings, where community members can discuss how to meet housing needs. These discussions will shape each area’s housing plan for 2023 to 2031. 

Hillsborough Planning Manager Liz Ruess acknowledged that it can be hard to engage people to talk about housing in the planning stages. Plus, change can be hard. There are older folks who want things to stay the same. But she felt encouraged by their last community meeting. 

“I was really happy to hear the voices that we heard at these meetings saying: This is a community problem. This is a county problem. This is a state problem,” Ruess said. “It made me feel cautiously optimistic that this isn’t going to be as uphill as I worried.” 

To learn more about the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, visit the Association of Bay Area Governments website here and California’s Housing and Community Development website here.