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A long shot of a brown and yellow apartment complex that seems to be about 8 stories high with a lot of cars parked outside the building.

Richmond works to meet housing goals after getting bad grade from grand jury

on October 21, 2023

Lia Cortes paused as she walked past a group of girls admiring the trendy clothes displayed on mannequins leaning against a pink wall in a small clothing store. The streetscape at 22nd Street and Nevin Avenue has changed dramatically in the 23 years Cortes has lived in the neighborhood.

“It is a main street. I used to drive through here but not walk because it used to be pretty sketchy,” Cortes said. 

Cortes lives in Terraces at Nevin, one of two affordable housing buildings in the neighborhood. She qualifies because, like the average Richmond household, she earns less than the Contra Costa County median income. But she realizes she is more fortunate than most, because her rent is subsidized. 

“I know my rent is a lot less than my friends. It has helped me and my grandmother stay in Richmond,” Cortes said.

Richmond developed its housing plan in 2015, setting a goal of 2,424 units between 2015 and 2023. Earlier this summer, a Contra Costa County grand jury sent a letter and a report to Richmond, finding that it, like the rest of the county, failed to meet its housing targets. 

Hitting low-income marks

California mandates that cities and counties create a plan to encourage additional housing for every income level. The state sets an eight-year goal based on expected population growth. For the Bay Area, the state sends the number of units needed to the Association of Bay Area Governments to allocate to cities and counties. This number of housing units needed for very low, low, median, and above median income levels is called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. To meet this mandate, cities include the housing targets in their General Plans. 

According to city staff, the grand jury report was a general assessment of the whole county. In its response to the grand jury, Richmond disagreed with most of the findings and tried to demonstrate what the city has done to encourage developers. Additionally, city officials say the report did not consider the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, when cities experienced process and building delays and increased development costs. 

“Richmond did a lot better than most cities in Contra Costa,” said Lina Velasco, the city’s director of community development. 

A map of the East Bay from Hercules to Berkeley and east to Walnut Creek shows the highest resourced communities in dark blue (Orinda, Layfayette, Walnut Creek), the moderate resourced in turquoise (Martinez, Berkeley, El Cerriot, Benicia, Hercules, Pinole) and the low resourced in pale green (Richmond and San Pablo)
Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program opportunity map. Affordable housing funding is higher in wealthier cities and lower in poor areas. (California State Treasurer)

While the city did not meet its moderate-income housing targets, it was well ahead of its low- and lowest-income housing goals, Velasco said. In the last eight years, the city permitted 100% (438 units) of its very-low-income target, 70% (214 units) of its low-income target, and 69% (882 units) of its above-median-income target. A

According to the Housing Readiness Report, a housing advocacy nonprofit that tracks affordable housing in the Bay Area, cities like Hercules, Martinez, and Orinda met little to none of their low- and lowest- income housing targets.

Failure to meet housing targets puts cities in danger of losing control of their housing development projects, the grand jury warned in its report. The state could override cities under the California Housing Accountability Act by, for example, granting developers the authority to bypass local zoning or approval processes, and fast track their permits. 

However, in its response to the grand jury, Richmond said that securing funding for these projects was a greater obstacle than the threat of state intervention. The city has already adopted a policy that requires developers with projects over 10 units to include affordable units or pay a fee, which is in alignment with the state’s recommendation for affordable housing.  

Not much affordable

Development increases property values as well as rent prices, according to Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, and this has historically caused the displacement of people who can no longer afford to live in the area.

“Affordable, that is such a relative word considering the prices that people consider affordable,” Martinez said. “For Richmond residents there is not much that can be affordable.”

Martinez said Richmond is doing as much as it can, but that the current high-interest market has made it significantly difficult to get financing for developments. State funding for affordable housing is hard to come by and, according to the city’s response to the grand jury, a 2018 state effort to create more affordable housing for residents in wealthier cities is making places like Richmond less competitive for grants. 

Although Richmond may be less competitive for certain state funds, it is finding creative ways to encourage new units.  A few blocks from low-income Terraces at Nevin apartments, an additional 150 affordable units are planned on a vacant lot adjacent to the Richmond BART station. The city, in partnership with Pacific West Communities, BART, and ACTransit, was awarded nearly $43 million for the Metrowalk affordable housing project. This transit-oriented development will include Richmond BART station improvements, such as upgraded fare gates and a connection from the bikeway to the ferry.

(Top photo: Terraces at Nevin Apartments, affordable housing for families and seniors, by Ana Tellez-Witrago.)

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