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Housing Frequently Asked Questions

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Since the update for the 2007 -2014 Housing Element process began, the City received many comments and questions about housing and the Housing Element update process. The City has compiled these questions and provided additional information to increase the understanding of housing issues. This page will be updated as the City receives additional questions.

Each link below will jump to the corresponding questions for the topic. 











A1. What is a Housing Element?

All Cities must adopt a General Plan to serve like a “constitution” to guide future development in the community. The Housing Element is one chapter of the General Plan. A Housing Element provides an analysis of a community’s housing needs for all income levels, and strategies to respond to those housing needs. State Law requires that each city accommodate its fair share of housing for all income levels, and the State goes to proscribe how many housing units must be accommodated for each income category. State Housing Element law also mandates that in order to facilitate the construction of housing, local governments must adopt land-use plans and implementing regulations that provide opportunities for, and do not unduly constrain, housing development.

According to State law, the Housing Element must:

• Identify and analyze existing and projected housing needs for all economic segments of the community
• Provide goals, policies, quantified objectives and scheduled programs to preserve, improve and develop housing
• Identify adequate sites to meet the city’s fair share of regional housing needs at all income levels within the 7 year housing cycle
• Be certified (approved) by the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) as complying with state law

Key content that Novato's Housing Element must contain includes:

• A summary of the population and housing characteristics that contribute to the present and future housing need in Novato.
• A description of constraints on the development of housing in Novato.
• An evaluation of the existing Housing Element.
• An inventory of sites to accommodate Novato's identified housing need.
• Programs to promote housing opportunities for all Novato residents.

A2. Why is the City updating its Housing Element?

Since 1969, Housing Elements have been mandatory portions of local general plans in California because the state legislature found that providing housing for all Californians is of vital statewide importance. To further the goal of providing housing the State also mandates that Housing Elements must be updated every five years. The City of Novato’s update is now due.

A3. What are the RHNA numbers?

The number of units that a City must accommodate is derived through a complex process initiated by the State of California. The State develops projections of how many housing units will be needed statewide. Those housing needs are allocated to regional planning agencies, which in turn allocate the required amount of housing to all local agencies including Novato. The number of housing units that each jurisdiction must accommodate in called its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).  


B1. How are Regional Housing Needs Allocation numbers determined?

This is a complex process that begins with the State of California.  The State prepares projections about expected population growth in the state and then allocates a portion of the total state population growth to each region.  Regional planning organizations in turn distribute the regional allocation among local jurisdictions.  For the Bay Area, the regional planning agency is the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).  There are three primary objectives in allocating the residences to local jurisdictions; increasing housing supply, affordability and housing type; encouraging infill and efficient development; and promoting a jobs/housing balance.  ABAG uses a formula with weighted criteria to accomplish these objectives and allocate the housing units.  The criteria include projected household growth (this accounts for 45% of the allocation), employment growth (22.5% of the allocation), existing employment (22.5%), household growth near transit (5%), and employment growth near transit (5%).  Recently, ABAG has also focused on influencing growth patterns to minimize green house gas emissions as is mandated by the State.

B2.  Are all of the City of Novato’s assigned housing units (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) for lower income households?

No.  Of the City’s remaining Regional Housing Needs Allocation, 676 units, over half (363) are allocated for moderate and above moderate income households.  The remaining 313 are allocated for lower income households.  The following is a complete breakdown of the City’s remaining Housing Needs Allocation by income level:


Above Moderate
(above $123,601)


(up to $123,600)


(up to $88,800)


Very Low
(up to $55,500)


Extremely Low
(up to $33,300)





Why is it proposed to amend the General Plan land use and zoning for certain sites to permit  development up to 30 residential units/acre.

Novato is within a metropolitan county (Marin).  Pursuant to State law [Gov. Code 65583.2(c)(3)(B)(iv)], cities within metropolitan counties that have a city with 50,000 or more inhabitants (San Rafael and Novato) and that have a population of 25,000 or more may assign a residential density to a site(s) of 30 units/acre and the State can deem the site(s) appropriate to accommodate housing for lower income households.


Can the City propose a density less than 30 units to the acre?

Yes, the City can propose a density that is less than 30 units to the acre, which is the density that has been assigned to the City of Novato by the state HCD. However, the City must provide information to HCD to demonstrate that development of sites at 30 units to the acre isn’t feasible. Staff continues to research this issue, and is working with representatives from other cities in Marin County, and the state department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) on how to address this issue.

Current housing law mandates that the analysis must be done the City proposes density at less than 30 units per acre. Also, state HCD automatically accepts the density of 30 units per acre with the expectation that affordable housing will result.


Is there a way to reduce the number of units that are allocated to the City of Novato?

During the allocation determination process conducted by ABAG, City staff advocated aggressively to try to have the number of units Novato will be expected to accommodate reduced.  Novato staff met with ABAG staff, submitted a written request to have the number lowered and spoke before the ABAG Board which approves the final allocation. The number for Novato was lowered to the currently required 1241 units. Staff is not aware of any instances where allocation numbers have been revised after approval by the Board, but will investigate this further.

Since the allocation was approved by the ABAG Board, staff has requested that the State allow projects the City has already approved to be counted towards the number of units the City must accommodate.  Through active lobbying efforts by City staff, the State has agreed to count approved projects against the City’s requirement, so the number of additional units the City must accommodate is down from 1241 to 676.


The 2000 census shows Novato was not a metropolitan city.  Smaller cities may propose 20 units/acre for affordable development.  If the census data is used, would this change the density requirement for Novato?

Both the State and ABAG use population numbers from the State Department of Finance (DOF) for their projections and allocation purposes.  These numbers are updated annually and are considered more accurate.  Therefore, Novato is considered to be a city of 50,000+ residents and is subject to the requirement for development at 30 units/acre.


Is Novato being asked to accept more than its fair share of housing in Marin?

The objectives of the allocation process influence how housing units are distributed.  Jurisdictions with larger existing residential and employment numbers get larger allocations for new housing, as do communities with available transit.  It is expected that new development in those areas will produce less green house gas emissions.  Novato has a larger population and employment base than most communities in Marin. The city also has good bus access and will have two SMART stations. Since most of the communities in Marin are much smaller than Novato, the number of units they are expected to accommodate is much smaller.  San Rafael which has a larger population than Novato is required to allow more units that Novato.  The County of Marin is rural in many areas with poor access to transit so their allocation is smaller than Novato’s. 



What is the penalty for not complying with the state Housing Laws, and not having a certified
Housing Element?

A Housing Element is considered out of compliance with State law if one of the following applies:

  1. It has not been revised and updated by the statutory deadline, or
  2. Its contents do not substantially comply with the statutory requirements. If a Housing Element is certified, there is a presumption that it is adequate, and a plaintiff must present an argument showing that it is in fact inadequate.

Repercussions include:

  1. Limited access to State Funding. Both the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (CIEDB) and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) award funds based on competitions that take into consideration the approval status of a community’s Housing Element.  
  2. Lawsuits. Developers and advocates may sue jurisdictions if their Housing Element is not compliant with State Law. Recent Bay Area cities that were successfully sued include Corte Madera, Pittsburg, Pleasanton, Alameda, Benicia, Fremont, Rohnert Park, Berkeley, Napa County, and Santa Rosa. There are several potential consequences of being sued, including:
    • Mandatory compliance – The court may order the community to bring the Element into compliance within 120 days.
    • Suspension of local control on building matters – The court may suspend the locality’s authority to issue building permits or grant zoning changes, variances or subdivision map approvals.
    • Court approval of housing developments – The court may step in and approve housing projects, including large projects that may not be wanted by the local community.
    • Fees – If a jurisdiction faces a court action stemming from its lack of compliance and either loses or settles the case, it often must pay substantial attorney fees to the plaintiff’s attorneys in addition to the fees paid to its own attorneys. These fees can easily exceed $100,000.



What is Affordable Housing?

The generally accepted measure for housing affordability is spending less than 33% of one’s gross household income on housing. There are five income categories that the State identifies; Extremely Low Income, Very Low Income, Low Income, Moderate Income, and Above Moderate Income. Based on the income levels specified for each category, the amount an individual in each group can send on housing is calculated and the rent or purchase price of housing is determined.


What are the income levels assigned to the (five) household income categories?

Pursuant to the most recent income level data from the State Department of Housing and Community Development, dated Febraury 1, 2012, the Median Family Income (MFI) in Marin County was 103,000.  For the five identified household income categories, household income levels (for four-person households) are defined as follows:

  • Extremely Low Income: Households with income up to $33,300.
  • Very Low Income: Households with incomes between $33,300 and $55,500.
  • Low Income: Households with incomes between 51 percent and 80 percent of MFI $55,500 to $88,800.
  • Moderate Income: Households with incomes between 81 percent and 120 percent of MFI ($88,800 to $123,600).
  • Above Moderate Income: Households with incomes greater than 120 percent of MFI (over $123,600).


What are typical occupations, based on salary range, that fall within the five income
categories based on a family of four?

Typical occupation by Income categories:

Extremely Low:         up to $33,300                 Retail Sales
Very Low: up to $55,550 Postal Service, Clerk
Low:  up to $88,800 Middle School Teacher
Moderate: up to $123,600 Civil Engineer
Above Mod.: over  $123,600 Lawyer



What criteria are City staff considering to identify housing opportunity sites?

            A.    The following base criteria are considered in the identification of housing opportunity sites:

            1.         Proximity/accessibility from site to Local Services - grocery store and
                        shopping, schools, transportation routes, community services/parks.

            2.         Adequate site size - approx. one acre or more to improve economic
                        feasibility and site control.  The costs for construction and long term
                        management of housing are reduced significantly as the number of units

            3.         Site availability – Undeveloped, underdeveloped and underutilized sites
                        that are generally unimpeded for development due to physical conditions
                        (steep slopes, flooding etc).

            4.         Seek a distribution of sites - to the extent feasible site selection should
                        avoid the potential concentration of lower income housing in a given
                        neighborhood or area of the City.

            5.         Appropriate site use or reuse – is the site best suited to serve housing needs
                        vs. other uses such as office and/or retail.  The City has a very limited
                        amount of remaining land designated to serve non-residential uses that
                        are critical to the community for a variety of reasons, including a robust
                        job base, and improving local shopping and service  opportunities.  
                        Additionally, the City’s fiscal condition relative to the provision of City
                        services (police, road and park maintenance etc) is reliant on sales tax
                        generated from a range of non-residential uses.


Will the City continue to look for alternative sites for housing?

Definitely.  The purpose of staff identifying housing opportunity sites was to begin a community conversation about where additional housing might be accommodated in the community.  It is expected that as those community discussions continue, some sites will be deleted from the list, some sites will be modified in size and, if necessary, new sites may be added to the list.  The requirement from the State is that enough sites be identified to adequately accommodate the housing needs for the community.  Which sites are designated is up to the local jurisdiction.  The City Council will have the final decision making authority for identifying housing opportunity.


Why were smaller sites not considered?

Generally, smaller sites were not considered for a series of reasons:

1.         Federal or state funding sources for non-profit housing developers are quite
            competitive, and these funds are reserved for larger development proposals,
            or are often targeted  for a minimum density of units per acre (25 units
            per acre, for example). Larger subsidies are allocated to larger projects.

2.         A for-profit developer might have similar private funding requirements, and might not
            consider a smaller site because of higher developments costs for a smaller site.

3.         There is a higher cost for managing a smaller site, whether the site is developed by a
            profit or not-for-profit developer.

4.         The City does not intend on developing any of the sites, and may not be able to
            participate financially, regardless of  the size of the site.

            Staff is continuing to discuss with the state HCD if there is a minimum lot size that the
            state believes is feasible in order for affordable housing to be constructed.


Can affordable housing be scattered through the City in small projects (3-5 units)?

If there was a developer that was interested in pursuing this kind of approach, this could be considered. However, given the costs to develop or rehabilitate and then manage the site, this kind of approach might not be financially feasible to a developer. 

It could take hundreds of sites to provide the required amount of housing. Current state housing law requires that sites be identified. For this reason, it is not realistic to believe this number of projects would be proposed, approved or constructed.


If the land use and zoning designations for a property containing a legally constructed single and/or multifamily home(s) is changed causing the home(s) to be legally nonconforming, can the home(s) be rebuilt if they are involuntarily damaged or destroyed by a catastrophic event?

Pursuant to Section 19.52.040A of the Novato Zoning Ordinance for nonconforming uses, structures, and parcels, nonconforming single- and multi-family dwellings that have been involuntarily damaged or destroyed by a catastrophic event may be reconstructed or replaced with a new structure using the same development standards applied to the damaged or destroyed structures, (e.g., setbacks, building height, and density standards) at the time of the construction of the original structure. If no specific development standards are applicable to the original structure (e.g., structure was constructed under the authority of the County of Marin) then the structure may be rebuilt as found prior to destruction.



Where does affordable housing exist within the City of Novato?

The City has a list and map of existing affordable housing projects. There are 28 separate sites in Novato where 1,507 affordable housing units exist. Of these 28 sites, 10 are group homes for the disabled. The current rent for many of these units is 30% of the income of the resident, and the income of the residents must fall within the 
ranges as listed below:

  • Extremely Low Income:          Households with incomes up to $33,300
  • Very Low Income:                  Households with incomes between $33,300 and $55,500
  • Low Income:                           Households with incomes between $55,500 and $88,800
  • Moderate Income:                   Households with incomes between $88,800 and $123,600
  • Above Moderate Income:       Households with incomes over $123,600.

Please click on the links below to see the map and list of these sites in Novato.

Current Affordable Housing List

Current Affordable Housing Map


Can affordable housing be scattered through the City in small projects (3-5 units)?

Projects of 30 units per acre can have very different design characteristics. For example, the senior housing project built by Novato Rotary along the west side of Redwood Boulevard, across from Trader Joe’s, NoVaRo3, is a two-story development, and is approximately 34 units per acre. NoVaRo2, also built by Novato Rotary on  Olive, is approximately 38 units per acre. The senior housing at the Villas at Hamilton on South Palm Drive is 50 units per acre. Whole Foods at DeLong is 54 units per acre.



Can the City get Regional Housing Needs Allocation credit for rehabilitating existing
run-down residential units?

Yes, provided the owner of the unit records a legally binding deed restriction (for sale) or rent/lease agreement that insures the units are affordable to lower income households.  To meet the City’s Housing Needs Allocation, there is a limit to the number of existing units that can be rehabilitated and restricted for lower income households.


Can the City get RHNA credit for the creation of second (accessory) units?

Yes, provided the owner of the unit records a legally binding deed restriction that insures the accessory unit will be rented/leased to qualifying lower income households.  Currently, there is no identified incentive (funding source or other) for owners to record a deed restriction on the property.  Additionally, very few accessory dwelling units are built annually (approx. one/year).  For these reasons, accessory units cannot be expected to provide many affordable units.


Can the city get credit for housing that might be included in mixed use development zoning areas?

This is a good question.  Mixed use zoning can allow commercial and residential development on the same parcel.  In the past, the State allowed limited credit for housing accommodated in mixed use districts.  There is a new requirement this planning cycle to identify exact parcels for development and the density for that development.  With this new requirement, it was unclear whether units in mixed use areas would be counted. Staff discussed this question with the State, and it appears that it may be possible to fulfill part of the City’s obligation through housing allowed in mixed use zones.  Some feedback staff has received indicates that the City may only receive partial credit for each residence provided in a mixed use area.  Staff is continuing to investigate the possibilities of counting housing in mixed use areas.


Can the allowed height or density of sites with existing multi-family projects be increased to allow additional affordable housing in those existing projects?

Conceptually, yes.  However, the City must provide information to the State to show that redevelopment of an existing site with increased density is truly feasible and practical.  There are many structural and financial reasons why such redevelopment may not be feasible in the State’s eyes, so staff does not believe this is a significant source of housing opportunities.


Can unincorporated land be annexed for housing?

Yes, with limitations.  The City has a voter initiated Urban Growth Boundary which is intended to limit urban sprawl by preventing development outside of the City boundaries and preventing the City boundaries from being expanded.  However, the City may annex up to ten acres of land outside the City per year for housing if certain conditions are met. Briefly summarized, these conditions are; the land is immediately adjacent to an existing comparably developed area and all services have adequate capacity; development will be primarily low and very low income; there is no residentially designated land in the city that can accommodate the project; it is not feasible to accommodate the development by redesignating land within the City; and, the proposed development is necessary to comply with State requirements.  In addition to the City Council making all of these findings and approving the annexation, annexation typically requires a willing land owner.  A goal of ABAG is to limit suburban sprawl and the green house gas emissions associated with that, so housing opportunities outside current City limits may be limited.


Can unincorporated land be annexed for housing?

The City Council initiated a study of land use in the North Redwood area in 2008, so that study has been ongoing for two years.  There are two General Plan land use designations which apply in the North Redwood area that allow housing in the downtown.  It has been proposed to increase the amount of land within these designations, thereby allowing additional potential for residential development.  In addition, as a result of the ongoing planning study, two new mixed use categories have been proposed which will allow greater amounts of housing. 

At this time, specific housing site have not been identified in the downtown because there is an interest in preserving the flexibility to encourage commercial development in the very limited amount of land that allows this use.  However, City staff is investigating possible State consideration of housing credit for mixed use land use designations and will also analyze possible designation of specific sites for housing in the downtown. 



Why wasn’t an environmental review done before rezoning?

There will be an environmental review of sites that will be considered for affordable housing. However, there should be agreement from the community on what the housing opportunity sites are going to be before an environmental review is performed. Not only does a defined list imply that there is community consensus on the sites, but the cost to perform the environmental review on the list of sites is reduced.

It would be an inefficient use of taxpayer resources to perform an environmental review on a running list of sites before a more refined list of sites has been agreed upon by the residents and City Council. Any environmental review should examine sites that would be seriously considered for affordable housing and have the ability to be developed for affordable housing.


Will affordable housing overload services?

Until an analysis of the sites has been conducted, it is too soon to determine or understand what the impact to city services will be.


Who is going to build the affordable units?

The City of Novato has never built affordable housing. The City’s responsibility is to identify the sites where this kind of development could occur.

It is expected that private market rate developers and non-profit housing developers would construct this housing. It could be that a partnership between a private and non-profit developer would occur to build housing. In the past, the City of Novato has contributed funds, however, due to the City’s financial constraints, the City may not be able to participate financially in projects.



What was the methodology for notifying the public of meetings?

Property owners and tenants within 600 feet of the proposed opportunity sites were mailed a notice of the Planning Commission meetings. Additionally, these notices were posted on the city website, and a legal ad was published in the Marin IJ.

There have been several news articles on this issue in both the Marin IJ and the Novato Advance so residents have been informed on this topic through the newspaper. Staff has also created and used an email distribution list of people to inform them of future meetings on affordable housing.


How can the public provide input/be involved in future meetings?

Please subscribe to our e-notification service to stay informed.

The City will be having workshops in the near future, and we hope that you can attend.

You can also submit questions or comments to staff directly at the following:


phone: Steve Marshall, AICP, Planning Manager, 415-899-8942

            Hans Grunt, Senior Planner, 415-899-8940

by mail: Steve Marshall, AICP, Planning Manager, City of Novato, 922 Machin Ave., Novato,
               CA 94945.


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