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Will Mendo Ever Again Have Affordable Housing?

Back in 2004 the Ukiah office of Legal Services of Northern California (formerly Redwood Legal) sued Mendocino County because the County's "Housing Element," a state-mandated ingredient of county general plans, did not comply with state law. Mendo's Housing Element wasn't worth the fancy paper it was written on — the fancy paper known as the General Plan.

The County has argued that all it's required to do is submit a piece of paper called "Housing Element" with some boilerplate and numbers on it. Once the piece of paper is filed the County has a Housing Element for its General Plan, neither of which happen to exist, or are likely to exist, beyond their paper assertions.

Predictably, Mendocino County's Housing Element bore no resemblance to known or even conceived reality. The County's numbers (for the unincorporated areas where the majority of Mendolanders live) were not based on housing for human-type beings who require indoor plumbing and the other fancy amenities normally associated with "House." The County says all it's required to do is submit the piece of paper called "Housing Element." They're not supposed to be held to it, for the goddess's sake! This is Mendocino County. Nobody holds anybody to anything, so to actually zone land for "affordable housing," aka "inclusionary housing" as required by state law is a step Mendocino County has not taken.

Inclusionary housing, by the way, is a sop to political democracy. It means a small percentage of housing will be made affordable to any family with a net income under $70,000 a year, but for the sake of appearances because we're really, really Nice People here in Mendocino County we'll pretend the under $50,000 people will get a couple of units of the housing which exists for no one anywhere, from Covelo to Gualala, Hopland to Piercy, but why don't we all pretend it does so some young busybody of a lawyer doesn't come along and sue us.

Unfortunately for Official Mendocino, fortunately for reality, a very smart young lawyer named Lisa Hillegas came along and sued.

The case, originally filed back in 2004, is called "Dottie Coplen [the lead plaintiff] vs the County of Mendocino." It has been in and out of county courts since, as Mendo has tried in vain to get the persistent Legal Services' Ms. Hillegas to leave them alone. She's not going away and neither is her lawsuit.

Ms. Hillegas recently deposed several senior county planning officials and then used the depositions to buttress her latest filing, which in legalese is called the "Reply Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Petition for Writ of Mandate and Interim Relief."

Translation: Mendocino County's Planning staffers are full of shake.

"Respondents [Mendocino County] in their Opposition to this Petition (aka "ROP") concede that the County has few or no sites where 1,390 units of multi-family housing affordable to lower income residents can be built to accommodate the County's regional share of housing need during the current 2003-2009 planning period," writes Hillegas and her fellow legal housing advocates. "This regional need, as determined by the Mendocino County of Governments, includes 746 units of housing affordable to very low income households and 644 units affordable to low income households. The County Housing Element acknowledged the lack of sites and was amended (after this lawsuit was filed) to include a program to provide at least 50 acres of sites suitable for lower income housing development by right no later than July 1, 2007. The California Department of Housing and Community Development granted conditional approval of the County's Housing Element subject to the express condition that this program be successfully implemented by July 1, 2007. The respondents concede that no sites have been rezoned and no housing affordable to lower income households has been built."

Ms. Hillegas goes on to point out that the General Plan's Housing Element doesn't comply with Government Code because it does not identify sites that could be rezoned, nor does it identify sites already zoned for affordable housing. Hillegas acknowledges that the County does not do the actual housing construction, but that by law it must identify suitable and properly zoned sites for it. The County didn't even identify 50 acres of sites as it promised it would do last time around.

Deputy County Counsel Frank Zotter, as always called upon to defend the indefensible, offered a transparently preposterous response. Zotter said that the rezone requirement was "directory," not "mandatory." (You can look it up — in the directory.)

Mendo hasn't even begun the rezoning process, let alone identified candidate sites where water and sewer could be provided for higher density, relatively affordable housing, which is very seldom actually affordable once it is built (and even if it is nothing prevents the buyer from turning around and selling it for more than "affordable" after a discrete period.) Anyway, and according to former County Planner Pam Townsend who left County employment in 2007 for the relatively lucid municipality of Ukiah, such zoning is still at least nine months away at best, and much further off if an Environmental Impact Report has to be done on it.

Additionally, the sites Mendo is reportedly considering for re-zone (at least for purposes of the Housing Element paperwork) clearly don't have adequate water and sewage capacity. Hillegas also points out that Mendo has even tried to include mobile homes, apartment complexes and duplexes in their list of "affordable" housing without mentioning what the rents are. (Hint: Most are not within shouting distance of "affordable.")

The County's current non-compliant Housing Element covers from 2003 to 2009. At the rate Mendo is going, a new Housing Element for the next "planning period" will have to be prepared by the time Mendo even starts to address the requirements for the current one.

The County now wants its residents to consider the deadlines in their own Housing Element to be "goals" not deadlines, a standard trick which Ms. Hillegas isn't buying. "The County makes excuses for its failures, but each excuse is actually a thinly veiled admission that its housing element is deficient."

Ms. Hillegas must be fairly young. Or new to the odd jurisdiction behind the Green Curtain. (The Green Curtain descends at the county line north of Cloverdale where the unwary plunge directly through the looking glass at the roadside sign reading, "Adopt-A-Highway — Medical Marijuana Patient's Union.") Anyone familiar with either Mendocino County government and its official language, MendoBlather, wouldn't be surprised at the meaningless Housing Element. MendoBlather is identified by remarks that begin, "Mr. Mitchell shared his observations on the board's goals and objectives..." And babble alerts like "visioning" and "envisioning," "working together," "strategic planning," "consensus," "prioritization," "stakeholders," "facilitate," "rewarding excellence," "green," "empowering," and on and on into the total, irremediable entropy which is Mendocino County government today.

One could perhaps sympathize with the County for having some trouble finding suitable sites for high density housing, but they never simply say that they're having trouble. They continue to crank out what sound like promises to do it. Then, after nothing's done, they say, "Oh, that was only a goal."

In fact, as Hillegas points out, the County only mentioned specific dates because the court ordered them to put the dates in the last time Hillegas sued.

Like everything else in these big picture plans, the County only does the bare minimum to mollify whoever's pestering them at the moment, and even that is done cynically and without commitment.

Back in 2005 when Judge Henderson first ordered the County to comply with their own Housing Element, he noted that "it is difficult to comprehend why the county for so long stubbornly resisted petitioners' efforts to persuade it to develop a consistent plan!" (Exclamation in original.)

Most interesting, though, is Ms. Hillegas' recent depositions of various members of the County's top planning staff.

From planner Pam Townsend's deposition: "[Planning Department Director Ray Hall] didn't review code amendments in a timely manner because I'd written code amendments after the 1993 element was adopted and they never got out of his 'in' box even though I asked him a couple of times."

Hall's in-box must be the size of Anton Stadium to accommodate all the un-acted upon County business in it. Maybe that's where Anderson Valley's "community input" to the General Plan disappeared.

Townsend said many of her proposed code amendments "never went anywhere." In fact, Townsend said most of her work "didn't really go anywhere" because of Hall's failure to review it. "Ray wasn't always good with wanting to do a lot of inter division and department coordination," the diplomatic Townsend said.

Asked why she thought Hall didn't review her work, Townsend explained, "I think it was, I guess, you know, not a high priority... Maybe it was too overwhelming to him..."

Maybe he didn't care because he's been unsupervised by the Supervisors for so many years his only priority for all the years he's occupied the office has been to get out with his pension intact.

What about the previous Housing Element that promised to rezone 124 acres for high-density/affordable housing? In his deposition, Planning Boss Ray Hall admits that was not done. Why? "I think there were other workload demands placed upon the department."

Which may be true. After all, Hall had to prepare an abomination of a Grading Ordinance that was so unworkable and unwieldy nobody liked it. That fiasco ate up literal years of Hall's time. The portly bumbler — think Dickens characters and you have Hall and Zotter — also had to go to lots and lots of meetings as a senior member of the County's "Planning Team," which was supposed to deal with such major planning tasks as the Ukiah Valley Area Plan, the General Plan Update, and various commercial proposals centered in the Ukiah Valley, all of which also went furiously nowhere, but went there very slow, meeting by meeting, year by year.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hall's participation in all these other blunders didn't prevent the Planning Team and its expensive outside consultants from losing the community input that has been submitted over the years. Maybe the County could hire a backhoe and start excavating Mr. Hall's heaping in-box. The input is probably in there somewhere.

But if it all stays lost, according to Mendo and its top officials, no problemo. They're only goals.

If you can only afford "affordable" housing, you'll just have to wait until a couple of years after Ray Hall gets around to going through his in box — if you live that long.

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