Planners' disdain for state housing demands, including quotas meant to help poor people, is hardly a secret.
"The housing element process is a significant expense to cities and counties," said George Osner, Modesto's former planning manager. "It's a complex and cumbersome process, and I don't see it having a lot of positive results in terms of production of affordable housing."
A 2003 Public Policy Institute of California study found that cities with certified housing elements were no more likely to produce houses than noncompliant cities.
Some are less generous than Osner. Five years ago, Charlie Woods, Turlock's planning director at the time, said of state mandates, "It's all done in a back room where they are either sniffing glue or they've got the incense burning and they are all chanting."
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"I stand by my original quote," Woods, now Atwater's planning director, said in a recent interview. "The people who work with (state housing) have no idea how development really works -- none. We tried to educate them, but they just don't care.
"If it were left to me, I know where I'd make some (state budget) cuts."
However, Woods acknowledged trying to land state grants for Atwater since he arrived Nov. 1, and he has updated its growth documents. Agencies without certified housing elements usually are not eligible for housing grants.
Besides Atwater, four other communities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley -- Waterford, Ripon, Tracy and Gustine -- have operated several years without certified housing elements. Planners in those cities, however, deny dragging their feet in protest.
In Waterford, part-time Planning Director Robert Borchard said he simply hasn't mailed its housing element, which underwent a major overhaul, to the state. Waterford has not suffered from ignoring a state law with few teeth, Borchard said.
Threatening to withhold funding for affordable housing because a city hasn't adequately planned for affordable housing "is sort of a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot solution," he said. "The reality is, it's a make-work law for state employees and hasn't done any benefits for people looking for affordable housing."
Gustine also smarts from the lack of a full-time planner, said City Manager Margaret Silveira, who took the helm four months ago. She also wants state grants -- Gustine hasn't applied in 10 years -- and eagerly awaits a consultant's redrawing of its housing element, she said.
State housing grants can be significant. Stanislaus County, for example, has received nearly $7 million in recent years, according to records.
Tracy's problem mostly stems from its growth-control ordinance, passed by city voters in 2000, which prohibits more than 100 new homes per year until 2012, when the number will rise to 600. Unlike most noncompliant agencies that fail to meet affordable unit standards, Tracy can't produce enough market-rate homes, said Bill Dean, planning manager.
"The Central Valley is being hit hard by foreclosures and you've got high numbers of vacant homes," Dean said. "Yet the state requires you to build more of exactly the same thing that's vacant."
Ripon officials are proud of their inclusionary zoning law, a rarity in this region, which requires that a percentage of homes in a subdivision be affordable to working families. City leaders show them off on tours for curious officials from elsewhere, and state officials have attended city housing element workshops.
But the state won't budge on a demand that Ripon zone more land aimed at high-density projects such as apartments, said Ken Zuidervaart, Ripon's planning director.
"The state's trying to do one cookie-cutter approach for all towns," he said. "They have a glitch in their system and they haven't tried to fix it."
But Zuidervaart is aware that judges haven't looked kindly on cities which advise the state to pound sand.
"There is a price to pay," said Mike Rawson of the Oakland-based California Affordable Housing Law Project. His organization has helped groups throughout California bring more than 20 lawsuits against their city or county, charging that housing elements don't adequately address affordable housing needs.
Such a case prompted a Sacramento County judge in 2002 to order a temporary moratorium in Folsom, which had welcomed high-end homes but no affordable housing in the previous decade. Negotiations produced an inclusionary zoning provision.
Other cases prevailed in Madera and Madera County, Rawson said, though none are known to have been brought in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Sometimes, Rawson said, lawsuits give cover to local politicians sympathetic to affordable housing goals but unwilling to confront residents afraid of lower-priced units in their neighborhoods.
"Some will say, 'Look, if we want to develop other things in this city, we have to have affordable housing programs, so let's hold our noses and adopt this,' " he said.
Cathy Creswell, deputy director of California Housing and Community Development, acknowledged that city and county officials have little control over the housing market, but said they still must "set the table" by tweaking policies to embrace future affordable housing.
"That's the beauty of this process," she said. "They aren't penalized if they've done everything they could and the market hasn't responded.
"But not planning for affordable housing doesn't mean growth isn't going to happen."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.