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Overview Of Housing Element Law

State law requires each city and county to adopt a general plan containing at least seven elements including housing. Unlike the other mandatory general plan elements, the housing element, required to be updated approximately every five or eight years, is subject to detailed statutory requirements and mandatory review by a State agency (Department of Housing and Community Development). Housing elements have been mandatory portions of general plans since 1969. This reflects the statutory recognition that the availability of housing is a matter of statewide importance and that cooperation between government and the private sector is critical to attainment of the State's housing goals. The regulation of the housing supply through planning and zoning powers affects the State’s ability to achieve its housing goal of “decent housing and a suitable living environment for every California family” and is critical to the State’s long-term economic competitiveness.

Housing element law requires local governments to adequately plan to meet their existing and projected housing needs, including their share of the regional housing need. Housing element law is the State’s primary market-based strategy to increase housing supply, choice, and affordability. The law recognizes that in order for the private sector to adequately address housing needs and demand, local governments must adopt land-use plans and regulatory schemes that provide opportunities for, and do not unduly constrain, housing development.

The housing element process begins with the Department allocating a region's share of the statewide housing need (RHNA Determination) to Councils of Governments (COG) based on Department of Finance population projections and population forecasts used in preparing regional transportation plans. Upon receiving the RHCD Determination from HCD, the COG develops a Regional Housing Need Plan (RHNA Plan) allocating the region’s share of the statewide need to each city and county within the region. The RHNA Plan is required to promote the following objectives (GC 65584(d)):

Housing element law requires local governments to be accountable for ensuring projected housing needs reflected by the RHNA allocation can be accommodated. The process maintains local control over where and what type of development should occur in local communities while providing the opportunity for the private sector to meet market demand. Housing element law recognizes the most critical decisions regarding housing development occur at the local level within the context of the periodically updated general plan. The RHNP component of the general plan requires local governments to balance the need for growth, including the need for additional housing, against other competing local interests. The RHNA Plan process of housing element law promotes the State's interest in encouraging open markets and providing opportunities for the private sector to address the State's housing demand, while leaving the ultimate decision about how and where to plan for growth at the regional and local levels. While land-use planning is fundamentally a local issue, the availability of housing is a matter of statewide importance.

Housing Elements Matter

The supply of housing is critical to achieving a variety of community objectives including economic development, educational attainment, achieving GHG objectives, increasing multimodal transportation including alternative transportation strategies, health including reductions in obesity and healthy housing, and community building. The Department has produced several briefs that summarize a number of studies documenting the importance of housing in addressing community needs. Policy briefs can be found here: Policy Briefs

An effective housing element provides the necessary conditions for preserving and producing an adequate supply of affordable housing. Among other things, the housing element provides an inventory of land adequately zoned or planned to be zoned for housing, certainty in permit processing procedures, and a commitment to assist in housing development through regulatory concessions and incentives. In addition, to this fundamental framework, the housing element update process provides a vehicle for establishing and updating housing and land-use strategies reflective of changing needs, resources and conditions. For example, the housing element update process can provide the mechanism to adopt new strategies to promote infill, mixed-use, or downtown revitalization.

The housing element also provides a powerful tool to address the special housing needs of Californians including the homeless, farmworkers and persons with disabilities. The housing element process ensures local governments promote a variety of housing types including multifamily rental units, manufactured housing, transitional and other types of supportive housing. For example, California’s Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63) provides financial resources to build supportive housing and addresses homelessness for people with mental illness. Housing element requirements to identify and analyze the housing needs of the homeless and extremely low-income households and identify sites and programs to meet those needs can also facilitate local efforts to obtain and effectively uses Proposition 63 resources.

The housing element update process also creates opportunities to increase interest in smart growth planning. The housing element provides both practical and policy tools to promote efficient land-use patterns while meeting critical housing needs. The housing element process provides a vehicle for coordinating infrastructure, housing finance and long-term land-use planning. For example, the housing element is often a coordinating document, providing a schedule for local housing departments to apply for important housing and community development funds. The update process also provides a mechanism to review ordinance, identify outdated policies or modify codes that inhibit housing supply, affordability and choice. Many local governments have established new permit procedures to streamline the approval process for infill or higher density housing during the update of the housing element.

Not only does the housing element update process result in strategies to address local housing needs, it is also frequently the most effective tool to implement broader general plan and regional strategies including California Regional Blueprints or Sustainable Community Strategies (SCS). Local governments can promote land-use patterns consistent with the region’s SCS while meeting critical housing needs through considering methods to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, uses surrounding current and future transportation corridors, and the existing and future built environment when preparing the housing element update. For example, without adequate planning of affordable housing near jobs, development patterns may result in increased vehicle miles traveled and negatively impact achieving climate change objectives.

Scheduling Provisions

To strengthen the connection between housing and transportation planning, SB 375 amendments to Government Code (GC) sections 65080 and 65588 made changes to some scheduling provisions to improve coordinating regional housing need assessment (RHNA) and local government housing element updates with schedules for adopting regional transportation plans. The transportation planning requirements included in Government Code Section 65080 apply to 18 federally designated MPOs in the State covering 37 counties and representing approximately 98 percent of the statewide population. MPO schedules to adopt RTPs that determine RHNA and housing element due dates are differentiated based on designation status of regional transportation organizations/agencies as follows:


A listing of Counties in which local governments have an 8-year or 5-year housing element planning period can be found at Appendix C – Jurisdiction Planning periods.

A Housing Needs Assessment

Existing Needs - The number of households overpaying for housing, living in overcrowded conditions, or with special housing needs (e.g., the elderly, large families, homeless) the number of housing units that need rehabilitation, and assisted affordable units at-risk of converting to market-rate.

Projected Needs - The city or county's share of the regional housing need as established in the RHNP prepared by the COG. The allocation establishes the number of new units needed, by income category, to accommodate expected population growth over the planning period of the housing element. The RHNP provides a benchmark for evaluating the adequacy of local zoning and regulatory actions to ensure each local government is providing sufficient appropriately designated land and opportunities for housing development to address population growth and job generation.

A Sites Inventory and Analysis

The element must include a detailed land inventory and analysis including a sites specific inventory listing properties, zoning and general plan designation, size and existing uses; a general analysis of environmental constraints and the availability of infrastructure, and evaluation of the suitability, availability and realistic development capacity of sites to accommodate the jurisdiction’s share of the regional housing need by income level. If the analysis does not demonstrate adequate sites, appropriately zoned to meet the jurisdiction’s share of the regional housing need, by income level, the element must include a program to provide the needed sites including providing zoning that allows owner-occupied and rental multifamily uses “by-right” with minimum densities and development standards that allow at least 16 units per sites.

An Analysis of ConstrAints on Housing

Governmental and Non-Governmental - Includes land-use controls, fees and exactions, on- and off-site improvement requirements, building codes and their enforcement, permit and processing procedures, and potential constraints on the development or improvement of housing for persons with disabilities.

Quantified Objectives

Estimates the number of units, by income level, to be constructed, rehabilitated, and conserved over the planning period of the element.

Housing Element Framework

The following framework illustrates how the housing element requirements interrelate. Results from each of the four key components of the analysis: review and revise, housing needs, resources, and constraints are reflected in the policies, programs, and objectives found within the implementation plan. The entire process surrounded by public participation from draft stage to final adoption.

Housing Element Framework. Different colored puzzle pieces that create the framework.
Click to Enlarge

The Update Process

When updating the housing element, it is important to note the following:

The Adoption Process

Government Code Section 65585 prescribes the following steps in adopting a housing element:

  1. submit a draft to the Department prior to adoption;
  2. consider the Department’s findings prior to adoption;
  3. revise and adopt the element to comply with the statute or adopt the draft without changes and specify in the resolution the findings that explain the reasons the housing element complies with the statute; and
  4. promptly submit the adopted housing element to HCD.

SB 375 specifies a consequence, if a local government on an eight-year planning cycle fails to adopt the housing element within 120 days of the statutory due date. The consequence, referred to as the SB 375 4-year consequence, requires a jurisdiction to update the housing element every four years until adopting at least two consecutive revisions by the applicable due dates.

The SB 375 120-day deadline regarding the 4-year update consequence does not mandate that the adopted housing element has to be first (a) submitted to HCD; (b) reviewed by HCD; or (c) found in compliance by HCD within the 120 timeframe.

The following flow outlines steps in the review and adoption process.

Review and Adoption Steps

The Review Process

Government Code Section 65585 requires local governments to submit copies of their draft and adopted housing elements to the Department for review. The Department will review the draft and report its findings to the jurisdiction. During the review process, HCD review staff will contact the local government to discuss the element and review prior to submitting final findings. After adoption of the element, the jurisdiction is required to submit the adopted element to the Department for review. The following is the timeframes allowed for each review:

60-day review for a draft element
90-day review for adopted element

Please note, in the preparation of its findings, the department may consult with any public agency, group, or person and must consider any third party comments regarding the draft or adopted element or amendment under review.

HCD staff also provides technical assistance in developing draft housing elements and, resources and advice in addressing review findings. Department staff will also visit communities and provide assistance in identifying resources to develop and implement the housing element.

The Streamline Process

The Housing Element Update Guidance is intended to assist local governments and stakeholders with streamlined updates and HCD review for fifth cycle housing elements. HCD recognizes all levels of governments and stakeholders are facing resource challenges and this guidance seeks to create efficiencies and clarity for all parties in the housing element update process. While all local governments are still required to complete a housing element update, the Update Guidance is designed to reduce the number and scope of housing element submittals per jurisdiction and to focus resources on providing assistance to jurisdictions to ensure compliance and effectively addressing housing needs. Further, to provide efficiencies when using the Update Guidance, the Department intends to review draft housing elements in less than 60 days and grant priority for those jurisdictions utilizing the Streamlined Review process. Further information on the streamline process can be found here: Streamline Update Documents

HCD Housing Element Review Process – (Adobe PDF)

Technical Assistance Links

The following links can assist in the preparation of the housing element:

Policy Briefs

Housing Element Workshop Recordings

Division of Housing Policy Development Staff contacts:

Also please see each of the sections of the Housing Element Building Block webpage for more links related to each of the required components of housing element law.