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Build your own Pacific Grove housing plan with this cool public engagement tool.

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Pam Marino here, feeling like I’ve solved all of Pacific Grove’s housing problems. OK, I might be exaggerating just a little, but I’ve had fun playing around with an online public engagement tool that P.G. officials are using to help people understand the real-world challenges of municipal planning. 

Pacific Grove, where I happen to live, is facing quite a challenge in order to meet the next round of California’s Regional Housing Number Allocations numbers, for 2023-2031. The small city of around 15,000 people has to plan for 1,125 additional units in its next housing plan, or face legal consequences from the state. (Note: they do not have to build the units, just plan for them.) Every city and county in California is facing the same challenge, as I explained in my cover story about RHNA back in September.

That there is a desperate need for more housing is obvious. Again using P.G. as an example, the city conducted a housing needs survey earlier this fall, with over 400 people participating, residents and workers. One of the open-ended questions was “How does the current housing situation in Pacific Grove affect you or the people you know?” Over 360 people answered the question, with nearly all of them relaying how they either can’t afford to live in P.G., or their children can’t, or they are paying an unsustainable amount of their income to live there.

That means change is coming—whether everybody likes it or not—and officials are looking for input. So P.G. officials are utilizing the online public engagement tool Balancing Act, created by the Colorado-based public policy consulting firm called Engaged Public, to give people the opportunity to play around with what the city could look like with more units. The tool cost the city approximately $6,000, paid for by a state grant, P.G. Community Development Director Anastacia Wyatt says.

There are two columns in the tool, “Housing Needs” and “Density Allocation.” You start under “Housing Needs,” choosing how much of a buffer to add to the 1,125 required units to plan for. The state recommends cities add 15- to 30-percent more units to their plan as a contingency. 

Once you’ve selected the buffer, you move over to “Density Allocation” and go area by area of the town suggesting how many units to add. For example, click on “Downtown” and a dropdown menu shows up with choices to redevelop surface parking lots, create housing above existing buildings and redevelop underutilized sites. In each choice you can choose to keep a location at its current density, or increase it to medium, medium-high or high density.

Across the top of the tool is a red bar that at first reads “You do not have a housing plan.” As you start filling out the tool, the bar records how many more housing units you need to reach the goal. Once you’ve reached the goal, the bar turns green and announces, “You have a housing plan!”

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I went right down the middle, sticking with mostly medium density, occasionally suggesting medium-high density, like in the case of redeveloping surface parking lots downtown. I started with a 20-percent buffer, which meant I had to plan for 1,350 units. I easily surpassed the goal, winding up with a surplus of 312 units. (If you opt for changing nothing, except for allowing ADUs which is already baked in, you only net a few housing units.)

Not everyone is going to like the changes ahead, but there are things I dislike more. Things like people I personally know who struggle to find a decent, affordable place to live. The phone calls I get here at the Weekly from senior citizens who, after a lifetime of contributing to this community, are now on the verge of homelessness or have become homeless. The 360 people who took the time to tell P.G. officials ‘we can’t take this anymore.’ 

P.G.’s tool is available through Nov. 30. Other cities in the county are now considering offering the tool. Wyatt tells me an informal group of local planners had a virtual meeting yesterday where they got to see a demonstration of Balancing Act.

Try the tool yourself, and let me know what you think.

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