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Can Southern California build 1.34 million homes in a decade?

December 10, 2019

City leaders are grappling with the state recommendation as one city councilman foresees “concrete everywhere.”

By Alicia Robinson

The state of California has been handing communities housing goals for decades, but never has the crisis of unavailable or unaffordable homes been more acute –and never has Southern California been given a bigger goal.

State housing officials, using a much-disputed equation that projects future housing needs and adds in the existing shortfall, told the six-county region this summer that it should plan to add 1.34 million new homes by the end of the decade.

That’s three times the number Southern California’s 191 cities and six counties are supposed to achieve by 2021, when the current housing cycle ends, and it’s nearly as many rooftops as Orange and Ventura counties combined have now.

The eye-popping number is the state’s attempt to grapple with the fact that the housing supply is already far behind what’s needed, with a very low vacancy rate and the number of overcrowded homes and the housing cost burden exceeding the national average, said Megan Kirkeby, assistant deputy director for fair housing in the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The state’s enormous mandate has sent many cities into a panic, wondering how they’ll meet their goal –and what penalties they may face if they don’t.

“If the state insists and gets their way, they’re going to ruin our communities by forcing them to zone for that housing,” Rolling Hills Estates Councilman Frank Zerunyan said.

“Either we care about the quality of life or we don’t, and we pour concrete everywhere.”

But the most severe hand-wringing is concentrated in Los Angeles and Orange counties, which got handed a bigger share of homes than they’d expected at a November meeting of theSouthern California Association of Governments. SCAG is a regional body that represents cities in those two counties as well as Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties, and it’s tasked with divvying up the region’s 1.34 million-home goal so each city and unincorporated county area gets a share.“

It really comes down to where does housing belong and where do we sustain human beings –and can we continue to push people to the limit at the edges of our county and expect them to commute,” he said.

Those hours-long commutes –Southern California’s are among the nation’s worst–help illustrate the high stakes of the region’s housing crisis.

Other risks are haphazard, unplanned growth; more people on the verge of or falling into homelessness; and young people –the taxpaying labor force of coming decades –leaving California because they can’t afford to stay, let alone buy a home or start a family.

Businesses also may leave if they can’t find workers or can’t pay them enough to cover the high cost of living, SCAG Executive Director Kome Ajise said.

“That begins to chip away at our economic vitality as a region,” he said. “The cost of failure is we’d lose our economic edge, pure and simple.”

‘Transformative effect’

But some officials say there are ways to solve the problem.

In Riverside, the solution has been to go higher, as the city has been doing with mixed-use projects of six or more stories in the downtown area, Bailey said. One developer also is proposing two multifamily projects totaling 700 units, which will take the place of closed Sears and Kmart stores and their acres of parking.

One of the main concerns cities are confronting is change and how it will affect their neighborhoods.

Back in 2012, Yorba Linda asked voters toapprove rezoning 14 properties to win state approval of the city’s housing plan. At the time, no housing projects were proposed there, but after voters said yes, “All of a sudden these landowners started selling and people were blaming it on the City Council,” Huang said.

Today, 11 of the 14 properties are now housing or soon will be, with more than 360 homes added and another 200-plus in the works.

When asked how meeting the state’s housing goals could affect the region, some officials and experts suggested dystopian cities crowded with looming high-rises; even the more optimistic agree it won’t look like it does today.

“Ask people 40 years ago if they recognize the area the way it is now,” said Richard Green, who directs USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate.“Places change.”

Bailey said he doesn’t expect a major voter revolt over building new homes –it hasn’t happened in Riverside so far –because everyone realizes there’s a housing crisis. Now in his 40s, Bailey saw the city’s population double in his lifetime.

“I think that there’s just too much fear out there in terms of the future and I can understand that, but is the sky falling?” he said. “No. It’s still California, it’s still an incredible place to call home with beautiful weather and so many assets."

For now, the state has until January to approve of how SCAG divided up the 1.34 million homes among its cities and unincorporated county areas. In February, the jurisdictions’ allotments will become official, after which they can appeal to SCAG. But Ajise said the Southern California total is final, so if a place argues its number down, those homes would have to go somewhere else in the region.

Costa Mesa’s Genis is surely not alone in her sentiments when she says, “I certainly hope that we will be appealing (our number).”

“This will have a transformative effect on Costa Mesa, and I don’t believe for the better.”

The original article can be found here.