Several weeks ago, one of the most well-known business leaders in Southern California, Lucy Dunn, wrote passionately about the impact of the housing affordability crisis in “Who’s really to blame for OC’s housing affordability crisis?” She also asked what your local elected officials are doing to ensure there’s adequate housing. I’m sad to say, not nearly enough.
We can talk in circles about strict environmental laws in California and how certain new developments can alter a community’s character. We can talk about the lack of funding available to build subsidized housing because city redevelopment agencies were dissolved over five years ago. We can spend a whole day pointing fingers at reasons why housing isn’t being built, but ultimately the housing solution lies with your local political leaders and you, the voter who has voted us into office.
When developers propose a residential project, they have to follow an approval process known as the discretionary review process using standards and guidelines set by the city. The driver behind this process is local land use law, but even if the proposed project is in compliance with these standards, the proposed homes face additional scrutiny from the planning commission and city council. As confirmed by the U.C. Berkeley study “Getting It Right: Examining the Local Land Use Entitlement Process in California to Inform Policy and Process” released last month, in many cases, cities appear to impose redundant or multiple layers of discretionary review on housing projects. Accordingly, the builders and developers have to navigate a complex process that is inconsistent across different cities even in the same region. This appears to particularly burden smaller development projects. As a result, they face a lot of uncertainty getting a permit to build new homes and efforts to make this process easier have not always been effective.
As a City Councilmember, I have seen a number of good residential projects proposed before the City Council, but they are ultimately rejected for a number of reasons. Often it is because their environmental review findings are challenged and it’s frequently the case that these challenges are not actually motivated by environmental reasons. Sometimes it’s to preserve community character. Residents are concerned that their city and neighborhood will change. They are right, things will change — but for the better. There will be less overcrowding in current housing, and workers have the option of not commuting long distances to their jobs. There will be more affordable options for current and future residents, and by providing more affordable housing, we can grow our middle class and grow our economy.
Our job as a city councilmember is to tie these positive changes to community values that already exist.
Every community defines its own values in its General Plan, which is a document that embodies the vision of the city and serves as a guide for development. Since 2003, only 11 out of the 34 Orange County cities have updated their General Plan despite the increase in population and decrease in housing affordability. We city councilmembers need to prioritize updating our General Plans to tie in the need for housing to our community values that already exist, such as economic development, preservation of parks, and improving access to jobs and schools. By doing so, we can also narrow the scope of challenges that are unfairly linked to environmental reasons while still preserving community character. This will make it easier for elected leaders to say yes to good housing projects that will benefit everyone. At the local level, several pro-housing groups such as Orange County’s own People 4 Housing, are working to link housing goals with community goals, and I encourage both leaders and voters to support these ideas.
The priorities I have for my city, which includes improving safety, strengthening economic development, and preserving open space is still the same vision I had when I was first elected to city council in 2006, but my vision now includes housing as an integral part of that. For so long housing has been viewed as a special platform and separate from other community priorities, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We, as elected leaders and voters of Orange County, can be pro-housing while being pro-business, pro-environment, and pro-community. The housing crisis is a collective problem requiring a collective solution and I call on you to make housing part of your community’s vision.
Michele Martinez is Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Santa Ana and Immediate Past President of the Southern California Association of Governments.
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