More Southern California cities than ever before are fighting to have their allocations of new homes rolled back.
No one denies the region needs more homes in general, and there’s been a specific push to get housing for low-income families built across the region.
But some city leaders say the 1.34 million new units assigned to the six-county area (including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties) is wildly overinflated, and there’s no place in their communities to shoehorn the hundreds or thousands of additional homes they’re mandated to put in their plans.
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Nearly four dozen local governments are appealing to have their housing numbers reduced in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process. After two days of hearings, the appeal committee of the Southern California Association of Governments had granted only one request; hearings were to continue through Jan. 22.
Every eight years, the state sets a target for meeting housing needs, and each community is given a share of the total and required to ensure, via zoning, that there are places the homes could be built.
The planning process has existed for decades, but this time the target is the biggest it has ever been, and with new laws and an overall housing shortage and consistent shortfalls in middle- and lower-income categories, local officials worry they can no longer get by on promises alone.
Yorba Linda Councilwoman Peggy Huang said state legislators no longer expect the process “to be just a planning tool; they’re expecting us to build it.”
With the allocations set to become final as soon as next month, 47 of the 191 cities and six counties in the region are appealing to SCAG to reduce their numbers.
Most Objections in LA, OC Counties
Most of the objections – 45 of 51 total appeals – come from within Los Angeles and Orange counties, where some officials have been complaining since fall 2019 that they were given a disproportionate burden, to the benefit of inland counties that have more available land.
Cities can’t ensure housing gets built–that’s mainly up to developers and the market–but state law requires them to show they have planned for additional homes at a variety of income levels and designated where they could be built. For many, this will likely mean a shift to allowing more multistory, multifamily complexes.
Most of the cities asking for a reduced number of homes hit on similar themes in their appeal requests: There’s no land available, water and sewer systems can’t handle what’s proposed, and added homes would be disproportionate to or too far from jobs.
Some beach cities also argued they’re limited by the state Coastal Commission, which can approve or reject proposed development along the shore. Cities with large open spaces or bordering wildlands argued the risk of fires limits where they can develop.
Little Resistance in Inland Empire
Very little pushback is coming from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which only filed a half-dozen appeals between them.
“The Orange County and Los Angeles cities are appealing because they’re getting numbers that they don’t like,” said Desert Hot Springs Councilman Russell Betts, who represents Riverside County on the appeals committee. “There was a significant shift in this RHNA process to put the housing where the jobs are.”
In past cycles, having empty land seemed like the main criteria for where to propose homes, Betts said, which disproportionately burdened the Inland area.
Cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties may still see their numbers as out of reach, but “Orange County and Los Angeles are now getting an equitable distribution,” Betts said, whereas before, “they were all getting dumped on the outlying areas.”
A number of cities made a broader argument, that the state’s projections of the number of homes needed are simply wrong and pointed to two recent studies finding fault with the state’s calculations. In its appeal, Pico Rivera said the state’s numbers were “inconsistent with growth forecasts at regional, state and federal levels.”
After two days of hearings that began Jan. 6, few of the appellants went away happy. The committee rejected all appeals except one from Riverside County regarding its unincorporated areas. A final decision on everyone’s numbers still rests with the full SCAG board, which includes representatives for all of the member governments.
While more appeals were filed compared to the last planning cycle, it’s perhaps not surprising that just one has been granted so far. Executive Director Kome Ajise said no city that appealed got its numbers reduced in the 2013 round.
And the state has already said no to SCAG’s request to lower the number of homes allotted to Southern California, so if one city in the region gets fewer units, another city would have to be given more.
“The thing to know is this is a zero-sum game,” Ajise said. “Whatever numbers we grant on appeal will have to be assigned to someone else.”
Cities have until October to show the state how they plan to reach their housing target – Ajise said the state declined SCAG’s request for a six-month extension – and those that whiff the deadline risk fines or the loss of some local control over housing.
Ajise said in the long run, the stakes are higher than that. While some cities argued in their appeals that the pandemic’s effects have slowed growth of the state’s population, Ajise said there’s still a net inflow, and Southern California was already behind in meeting the need for housing.
“We need housing to the point that it’s become an existential issue for our economy,” he said.