Wealthy Southern California cities fight affordable housing mandates

The Newport Beach waterfront. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Nigel Duara | Cal Matters

They say you get what you pay for, but when it comes to affordable housing, affluent Southern California cities pay next to nothing. And that’s exactly what they want.

Between 2013 and 2021, the State of California awarded the City of Newport Beach a total of two affordable housing units, defined by the state as low or very low income. The state gave Lake Forest, a town of similar size and population, 1,097 units.

The state has awarded the City of Beverly Hills three units. He awarded Coachella, in the Inland Empire, 2,614.

The disparity was highlighted in a scathing report by the state auditor’s office as one of many flaws contributing to California’s affordable housing crisis. Researchers and auditors say the state’s approach to housing finance and planning is uncoordinated and inefficient, and one of the ways wealthy cities have been able to build far less affordable housing than their interior and less wealthy counterparts is to lobby during the planning stages. This is a crucial step because once local jurisdictions receive their housing allocation, they must make a plan to build them.

Now, as the state’s regional housing commissions prepare for a new allocation process intended to distribute housing units more fairly, the system is already being tested. An appeal process is due to begin in early January and wealthy communities have already lined up to plead their case.

For the most recent cycle, Newport Beach was assigned 4,834 units. The city wants that number reduced to 2,426 units on appeal.

Cities fight over real housing needs

The allocation of affordable housing “numbers are not real ‘housing needs’ – they are the result of a political process where cities lobby and, often, fight to keep their numbers low”, wrote UCLA researchers in a policy brief published last year.

“That’s why Beverly Hills, which is nobody’s idea of ​​affordable, has been determined to ‘only need’ three new low-income housing units between 2013 and 2021, while other cities of similar size and much more affordable cities were determined to ‘need’ hundreds of units.

Or, in some cases, thousands.

Other factors are certainly at play: it is cheaper to build or buy a home in Coachella and Lake Forest than in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. But there are also reasons why it makes more sense to build or buy affordable housing in affluent cities, starting with their proximity to public transport and jobs, as well as the lack of affordable housing.

“I think what the audit is saying is there’s a problem with the discrepancy in how previous allocations have gone for different cities,” said Gayle Ackerman, director of community development at LakeForest. “They use a completely different formula now.”

The fifth round of regional housing need allocation began in 2011 with memoirs with ominous titles such as “Mission Impossible?” and “Where will our children live?” These questions remain in the upcoming sixth cycle, which runs from 2021 to 2029.

Pronounced by policy experts as “REE’-nah”, the RHNA process is an eight-year cycle that considers a multitude of factors to determine regional housing needs, including population, employment and household growth. These are then forwarded to the regional associations, which make the final decisions on housing allocations. Then comes the appeal process.

Beginning of the new housing need allocation cycle

Once again, at least in Southern California, cities wealthier than the median California municipality are leading the way in the appeals process for the next RHNA allocation, the state’s sixth round.

Even the poorest cities on the list come with some caveats. The city of Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County and one of the poorest cities on the appeals list, did not file its own appeal of RHNA numbers. Instead, the wealthier towns of Irvine, Newport Beach, Garden Grove and Yorba Linda filed appeals on his behalf.

Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, or SCAG, initially denied that lobbying played a role in the award process during an interview with CalMatters. For example, he said, no appeals were granted in the previous housing allocation formula, the one that ended with Beverly Hills and Newport Beach receiving less than four units each.

But Ajise said the cities’ “input” played a part in the process.

Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, co-authored an article arguing for a complete revamp of the process, removing the focus on vacant and underutilized land in favor rezoning to places where people can easily get to work and public transit. He is also a co-author of the UCLA guidance note on lobbying in the RHNA process.

“The cynical interpretation is that they present local input as a ‘technical process’ (which results in an outcome that satisfies NIMBY’s wealthy city preferences) as a way to distract critics,” said Monkkonen in an email. “Whatever term you use, the result defeats the purposes of the state housing law, all of SCAG’s own lofty rhetoric about sustainability, and the social equity of based.”

The Challenges of High Density Housing

For the upcoming cycle, Newport Beach appealed its allocation based on three available factors: a failure of methodology, a failure to consider local planning factors – such as zoning – or unforeseen changes in circumstances. , like the ongoing pandemic.

The city argues that the allotment process failed to take into account that more than 60% of the city is on the coast and is subject to the California Coastal Commission, making it difficult to rezone density housing. When the city attempted to release a 1,375-unit development plan for the 400-acre wetland area called Banning Ranch in 2012, the coast commission rejected it four years later due to potential impact on the environment. sensitive habitat.

“While the SCAG is authorized to review Newport Beach’s ability to re-zoning, it cannot compel members to violate other laws to do so,” the city said in its appeal letter.

Not so fast, responded the Public Law Center of Orange County.

“The areas affected by these factors are extremely limited and leave a large area available

for future development,” the attorneys at the nonprofit legal center wrote. “The city is not responsible for obtaining land to develop its assigned RHNA allocation, but is simply to identify areas for future housing opportunities.”

“Therefore, SCAG should encourage the city to consider the future use of current developments and not grant the city’s appeal on that basis.”

The last cycle’s formula led to more rural and less urban housing allocations, resulting in unincorporated Riverside County receiving an allocation of over 30,000 housing units. The county has rezoned 1,000 parcels of land to high-density residential land, but no development has even applied to build on that land, the county said in its appeal letter regarding the RHNA’s reallocation.

The new formula is oriented towards more urbanism, emphasizing proximity to public transport – also within the framework of a climate objective. Whether that ultimately leads to more affordable housing in Newport Beach and Beverly Hills remains to be seen.

This article is part of the california division, a collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California. CalMatters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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Bernard P. Love