Orange County’s top elected officials are warning the lack of affordable housing threatens the quality of life and upward mobility of residents, and puts the county’s economic future at risk.
“Orange County is experiencing a substantial shortage of housing, which is creating a significant negative impact on household budgets and the quality of life of its residents, as well as diminishing our county’s workforce,” states the county’s new Declaration on Housing, which was adopted March 13 by the Board of Supervisors.
“Orange County’s housing shortage threatens our ability to attract and retain a talented workforce, undermining Orange County’s long-term economic competitiveness,” the declaration adds.
“As civic leaders we vow to work collaboratively with public, private, non-profit, and faith-based partners to meet our regional housing needs.”
The supervisors, led by Chairman Andrew Do, are asking all of Orange County’s 34 city councils to sign the declaration, which Do brought to the board.
Along with adopting the declaration, supervisors directed county staff to work with “stakeholders” to “collaborate and prepare a report” to the supervisors within 90 days, “detailing how Orange County can facilitate the construction of housing at or below a $500,000 price level.” The deadline to deliver the report is June 11.
“There’s a tremendous need, so it’s important that this board, that the county, be upfront that we recognize this need,” Do said at the supervisors’ meeting last week, where the declaration was approved. The message, he said, is, “We should work into our planning a desire, a goal, to increase housing stock [at] all price points.”
The declaration acknowledged what economists and business leaders have been saying for years: the shortage of affordable housing presents serious threats to the county’s future, as family budgets get strained, talented young people decide to live in other regions, and traffic congestion worsens as people have to live farther from their jobs.
“The migration of the County’s skilled workers, many of whom grew up in Orange County, to live in distant cities that require significant commutes, is harmful to family life, household budgets, air quality, our business climate, and traffic conditions,” the declaration states.
“The County needs sufficient housing accessible to all of Orange County’s workforce,” it adds. “To extend Orange County’s legacy of economic vitality and quality living into the future, the County must have a broad set of housing options for workers of all income levels.”
The leader of the county’s largest business group said the declaration is a step in the right direction.
“I commend the supervisors for putting in writing what those of us in business have known for many years,” said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, known as OCBC, in an interview with Voice of OC.
“We’ll certainly be supportive of their efforts to engage our cities and make sure they’re stepping up to say ‘yes’ to housing,” she added. There was a shortage of about 65,000 homes of all types countywide in 2015, and it’s only grown worse since then, Dunn said.
Dunn served as director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and has served on the California Transportation Commission since 2008.
“One of the most important issues for me is, how do I keep young people from leaving Orange County?” she said. “We have unbelievably talented people coming out of our university systems who cannot afford to live here. We know that the the county is aging, and as long as we’re investing in these young people’s education, we want to take that talent and keep it in Orange County.”
Housing has steadily become less and less affordable in Orange County over the years, and it’s now one of the least affordable places to live in the United States, and California overall is one of the least affordable states.
Orange County residents also paid more of their income toward housing – 44 percent – than people in any other large county in California, according to a statewide housing assessment last year by the state’s housing department.
Orange County also has the largest share of people who cannot afford to buy homes among the six Southern California counties, according to statewide data compiled by the California Association of Realtors. In OC, 79 percent of households cannot purchase a median-priced home, according to the data, which is higher than Los Angeles County’s 75 percent.
While Orange County supervisors declared the issue a priority, and ordered the preparation of a report, they did not say what further steps they would take to address the issue. The report, which is due by June 11, might ask for policy action from the supervisors, who would then discuss it and decide what to do, according to county officials.
Leading the report’s development will be Do’s office and staff members at various county departments, said Do’s communications director, Tara Campbell.
The county report will be released publicly on a Board of Supervisors meeting meeting agenda, said Campbell, who also is a Yorba Linda City Council member. She said a decision hadn’t been made on whether to release a draft version of the report for public input before it’s finalized.
Asked which groups have been invited to participate in developing the plan, Campbell said: “We are currently working on assembling a core group that incorporates public sector, private sector and community groups.”
Asked again over the next three business days for examples of groups invited and those that have agreed to participate, Campbell did not have answers as of Tuesday night.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson supported the housing declaration, but said he doubted it would lead to results, particularly if environmental laws aren’t changed to make it easier to build housing.
“This is about intentions,” he said. “And your intentions are largely irrelevant, because the only thing that matters is results, and I don’t think this is gonna result in anything.”
Business leaders, economists, and advocates for low-income people have attributed the growing housing shortage to demand for housing growing much faster than construction of new housing. New projects often face pushback from nearby residents and businesses, who raise concerns about denser housing worsening traffic congestion in areas where transportation options still revolve around the car-based suburban model.
Expanding public transit options, and having more people choosing to ride transit, would help, Dunn said.
She cited examples of the upcoming OC Streetcar in Santa Ana, which she called a “game changer,” and said if Irvine residents took the city’s iShuttle service once a week, it would make a difference in reducing traffic congestion.
Additionally, she said, “If you can get people to live [close to] where they work, there’s less congestion.” Adding more housing options would help with this, she said, particularly “mixed-use” housing that combines retail and business space, often on the first floor, with residential homes, often on the second floor and above.
During their discussion last week, the supervisors discussed a need to reform the California Environmental Quality Act, commonly known as CEQA. Home developers and businesses have cited the law as a major stumbling block to building new housing, and say it drives up prices.
Because CEQA is a state law, changes to it can only be made by the state Legislature or the voters of California. As they discussed the housing declaration, Orange County supervisors said the CEQA process needs to be streamlined to reduce costs and timelines for housing development, but did not mention any pending bills in Sacramento they support, nor explain how they planned on working to get the law changed.
Asked what CEQA reform bills the county supervisors support, Do’s communications director provided a list of two bills the supervisors supported in recent years. Neither bill, both of which failed to pass, would have helped with constructing new housing for anyone but homeless people. One bill applied only to shelters and housing for homeless people, and the other applied only to water infrastructure projects.
Campbell did not have an answer regarding what kind of framework the supervisors support for CEQA reform, beyond their existing legislative goal to “modernize, simplify and streamline” the law.
The housing declaration reflects a shift by the supervisors over the past year.
In February 2017, Chapman University researchers presented data about the housing crisis to the supervisors and encouraged the supervisors to have the county take leadership as a “convener of other governments.”
The researchers faced pushback from the supervisors, with Do and Nelson criticizing them and questioning whether it was the supervisors’ role to take leadership on the issue.
Do suggested the researchers “stick with” only providing data, not suggestions of potential actions like advocating for policy changes in Sacramento.
One of the researchers, Chapman professor Joel Kotkin, pushed back, saying ignoring the role of state policy “makes no sense at all.”
During the same discussion, supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Todd Spitzer were welcoming of supervisors taking leadership on conversations and advocacy efforts around housing.
This month, both Do and Nelson joined in declaring the housing crisis a major problem county and city officials should collaborate with other groups to address.
Last week’s declaration appeared to be the first time county supervisors adopted an official statement acknowledging the housing shortage. County officials said they were not aware of any other declarations about housing affordability by the supervisors.
Pressure from the business community has been growing, with groups like the business council and the Building Industry Association drawing attention to the housing shortage and encouraging action to address it.
At last week’s meeting, all five supervisors said they supported the housing declaration text that was ultimately approved.
The main disagreement was over whether to add a section calling for reform of CEQA. Nelson, Spitzer and Supervisor Michelle Steel wanted to add it, while Do and Bartlett did not.
The vote was 3-2, with Spitzer and Steel opposing on the grounds it didn’t include the CEQA reform provision. Spitzer and Nelson tried to re-open the vote to add the CEQA statement to it, but Steel had stepped out of the room and they didn’t succeed in adding the language.
County officials say the housing shortage has contributed to another growing issue: homelessness. The county’s unsheltered homeless population grew by more than 50 percent between 2013 and 2017.
City officials now are working with their association to try to build 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing across the county for disabled people who are homeless.
And county supervisors on Monday committed to spending $70.5 million in stockpiled mental health money on housing and support services for homeless people with severe mental illnesses.
Additionally, Chapman University will host an all-day conference on April 5 about fixing the housing shortage. Organizers say the free event is open to the public, but an RSVP is required.
As for the county’s housing declaration, Dunn, the business council leader, said she’ll be measuring results not by what people say, but by construction actually getting underway for building new homes – or “sticks in the ground.”
“The discussion is all great. At the end of the day, when sticks are in the ground, that’s when I know success will have [been] realized. It’s not just talk,” Dunn said. “It’s helping get sticks in the ground.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.