The Humboldt County government is making some dramatic changes in its approach to improving housing affordability. 

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors adopted a revised housing element that includes some bold new approaches aimed at encouraging the production of new housing, including low-income options such as secondary units and tiny house villages.

Michelle Nielsen, the county’s senior planner for long-range planning, told the board at Tuesday’s meeting that the new planning document “represents a paradigm shift from the status quo.” It will move the county’s Planning and Building Department into a more active planning role with developers, local cities and other county agencies to address community housing needs.

Humboldt County last updated its housing element in 2014, and as Planning and Building Director John H. Ford informed the board on Tuesday, that version’s compliance with state law was set to expire at the end of the month. If it had been allowed to sunset without an update, the county would have risked becoming ineligible for various state and federal program funds. 

Ford said his staff was “really excited” to present an updated version that’s already been vetted by the public, via a series of community workshops, along with the county’s Planning Commission and the state’s department of Housing and Community Development. 

No one in the room needed a reminder about the county’s ongoing problems with housing affordability and homelessness. Roughly 70 percent of households in the county cannot afford a median-priced home here. And despite adopting a “housing first” strategy to combat homelessness, the county has continually fallen short of its targets for building new housing.

Granted, the county population is not growing very fast — less than one percent annually — and yet we’re still falling well short of meeting our projected regional housing needs.

For the period of 2014 to 2018, Humboldt County had a target of 212 new housing units for people in the “extremely low” and “very low” income categories. Only 33 such units were actually built during that time, meaning we fell 84 percent short.

For the “low income” category the target was 135 units, and just 44 were built — less than a third of what was needed. 

Across all income categories, just 59 percent of the housing we needed was actually constructed. (Note: these figures apply only to the county’s unincorporated areas.) Ford said the latest housing element reflects a broad-based understanding that “something different needs to be done.”

The new slate of housing element amendments adopted Tuesday cover the eight-year planning period from 2019 to 2027. Like previous iterations of the document, the new housing element suggests reforms to county code and internal processes that might encourage more production of affordable housing. 

But there are also some “bold new approaches,” according to the county’s staff report. “For example,” it states, “the amendments propose to dramatically expand allowances for accessory dwelling units (formally known as second units), and to create new allowances for tiny homes, moveable tiny houses, and tiny house villages.”

This comes as welcome news to many of the county’s most prominent activists on homelessness issues. Nezzie Wade, board president of the group Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA), said she’s very happy the county has included tiny houses in its plan.

“I think we all know these options will be helpful, and I’m very excited about having some change,” she said.

Nielsen said the county will take a more proactive approach to housing development, rather than acting as a mere regulatory agency. Zoning regulations will be updated to facilitate supportive housing and emergency shelters. Housing seminars will be held out in the community, offering technical assistance with permit applications. The inventory and range of pre-approved housing plans will be increased and kept current. And allowances for accessory dwelling units (aka second units) will be dramatically expanded.

Ford said the county would like to underwrite the fees for these accessory units, making them even more affordable. 

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he appreciated the county’s more proactive approach, though he questioned whether increased housing density would be appropriate in more rural areas, especially those without bus service. He also suggested working with the Hoopa Valley Tribe to reopen a manufactured home facility on the reservation, perhaps utilizing it to build tiny homes. 

With Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson absent (taking his daughter off to college, according to Board Chair Rex Bohn), the board voted unanimously, 4-0, to adopt the new housing element.