‘The Survival of Our Region’ Depends on Addressing Housing Crisis: A Q&A With Kome Ajise

Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG)

Kome Ajise is the executive director of Southern California Association of Government (SCAG), which is the association responsible for allocating the state mandated housing target for Orange and five other counties in the region.

Orange County cities have been pushing back on new regional quotas that significantly expand affordable housing goals for the next ten years, as the state puts pressure on them to address the housing shortage by zoning for new construction.

Uproar from some city officials started after the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) board – made of city and county elected officials – approved a draft plan in November to increase housing targets for certain cities in OC, like Newport Beach and Irvine. It stems from a state requirement that cities within the six-county region of SCAG zone for 1.3 million units of new housing over the next 10 years.

City officials in Orange County have publicly criticized SCAG’s draft plan as unfair, unvetted and failing to take into account the cities’ concerns and input.

SCAG, meanwhile, says the draft plan was approved by state officials, and that it fairly distributes new homes in a way where OC’s requirements are still less than its share of the region’s population.

Voice of OC spoke with Kome Ajise, the executive director of SCAG, about how the plan was developed and what’s at stake with Southern California’s housing crisis.

“This is a serious crisis for us. It’s one that I think the survival of our region depends on, because if we don’t provide enough workforce affordable housing we’re going to continue to lose people that are talented and the jobs will follow them,” Ajise said.

“The issue still is in our region we have a severe housing crisis and we can continue to argue about the number, or we can start to make sure we’re building units.”

(The answers below are lightly edited for clarity.)

What is the Southern California Association of Governments’ role in addressing the housing shortage in California?

SCAG as the regional planning agency has in its portfolio a variety of things that transcend the capacity of any simple jurisdiction like a city or the county. The cities and counties come together [at SCAG] to work together to solve those problems that they can’t solve individually in their cities, and one of those is housing of course. Air quality and transportation are other things that you might keep in mind.

In terms of housing, one of the first requirements we have is we consider housing in developing our regional transportation plan transition plan – so the number of houses that are here, where people go from and to work, where people live, determines where they begin trips. And we do a lot of analysis along the lines of trip making and transportation, so housing is important from that perspective.

Secondly, from the basis of law, the law requires of SCAG every eight years what we call a Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). That’s an assignment by state law to SCAG to work on making sure we are all, as a region, planning for our housing needs every so often. The law requires this to be done every eight years, so we’re in that cycle now – the sixth cycle of that law. That’s called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA.

Some cities and city council members in Orange County are critical of the methodology that was adopted. What is your response to the criticism?

The concerns about the process are always important to us. We try to maintain as clear and transparent a process as possible, and I think we’ve done that over the last 14 to 15 months. We’ve begun the process, we’ve had open meetings every single month. The RHNA subcommittee at SCAG, which is representative of every single county, has one member of every county. And you have an alternate on that committee, so there are six current members and one alternate for each, so they’re 12 people who have been around the issue of making sure that we are following the requirements of law. And alternately, the last referee of the process is the state, the state Housing and Community Development department (HCD) has to rule to be sure that we followed the process as required by state law. And we just got that ruling from them.

We’re comfortable with what we’ve done because I think it stood the test of what the law required us to do. I would argue that I think a number of cities – in fact, I think every single city is a little concerned about the assignment that they’re getting, because the state gave us a huge number to all of our 191 cities and six counties.

That huge number means every single city is going to get a huge number that they have to plan for. And some cities maybe are feeling that they don’t have the capacity to accommodate the number of units we’re likely going to assign to them, because the process is not done yet. I can see where some cities would be upset at that, but I would challenge anybody to question the process that we’ve gone through because we’ve been as transparent as possible and people might be unhappy with the outcome, but the outcome is not something that we have control over. The outcome is a result of a process that I think we put together as well as we could.

Do you feel that the 1.3 million units that SCAG was tasked with zoning for is a fair number?

Well at this point, honestly it doesn’t matter because we can’t change the number, so for me to say it’s not fair is to begin to try to relitigate that. We’ve already made our case because we feel like we have the capacity to understand what our need is in our region, and we made our case to the state when we first got the number. They adjusted the number down. It wasn’t as much as we hoped that they would, but at least they took our case and adjusted the number down by a couple of thousand units.

Whether it’s 1.3 million or 800,000 or 3 million housing units, the issue still is, in our region we have a severe housing crisis and we can continue to argue about the number, or we can start to make sure we’re building units. If the number is too high and we only build half of it, we would have built more houses than we’ve built in the last ten years. I would argue that the number is not material at this point. 

We just need to find a way, from our perspective at SCAG, to help our cities to be able to realize those numbers because we need to create more housing units in our region. Where it’s going to happen is having cities have the capacity to do that work, and that’s really what SCAG wants to spend the next cycle of time on – after we get past the methodology – is to start working with the cities to, one, help them identify probable sites. Two, help them to be able to attract and incentivize housing construction and hopefully begin to gain on the number, because we are so far behind at this point.

In your opinion, What will it take to stabilize the housing crisis in this region and ensure everybody has affordable housing options?

I would have to be a prophet or a magician to know the detail of what’s going to help, but I can tell you from my professional capacity – and in our professional opinion at SCAG – supply is a big deal. We are just behind on housing units. The numbers we got from the state indicated that in the past, in the RHNA process you only plan for future housing needs. State law changed such that we now have to look at our existing housing needs on top of the future housing needs, and out of the 1.3 million, over 800,000 of that is set aside as existing need. What I suggest is that for the people who are already here, we’re missing about 800,000 units just to house the people who are already here – let alone to talk about the people who join us in the future as the population grows.

So to solve that, it’s simple math – you just need to build more housing. And so to stabilize the housing market, we need to find a way to be able to help our cities encourage the housing industry to actually build houses. It’s an economic issue. If it was easy to build, people would be building. It’s difficult for a number of reasons, so we will also be working with our cities – not only to create a capacity for them to incentivize developers to come into their cities and build – but also help them with planning capacity to be able to identify where to zone so these units can be built. But thirdly, to also create some streamlining in the process both for approvals and environmental reviews to get this housing built on time.

There are a number of things: One is to provide the capacity for cities to incentivize and attract developers. Allow cities to have the ability to more easily identify places where housing units can go. And then thirdly, to align both our permitting process and our environmental review process such that housing development is not stalled in the process so it doesn’t take years to get to construction.

How is SCAG ensuring a fair distribution of the allocation it got?

That’s really the basis of the methodology – to make sure that it’s fair. The 1.3 million units that the state assigned to us is split into two. Almost 900,000 of the 1.3 million is existing need, so we try to assign the existing need where we feel like there will be adequate capacity for infrastructure for the units to be able to use, so that it doesn’t become much of a burden on the region. So the existing need is assigned based on access to transit and access to jobs.

You want houses to be close to jobs so people are not traveling too far, and so that’s one equitable way of doing it. The law also requires that housing assignments are in four different income groups – low income all the way to above market income. So how those are assigned within the income groups are also important, so that you’re not continuing to burden low income cities and communities with more low income housing. And to try and spread that around to make sure that everybody gets to participate in the various income groups in an equitable way is also part of the methodology.

People don’t talk much about that, but that is an essential requirement under law in the methodology. For the future, the proposed units that we would need for people that would join us in this region – as a result of population growth that is assigned based on what we think each city’s projected future needs will be – as well as closeness to transit and also closeness to jobs. We went through a very rigorous process to identify the most equitable methodology possible.

We feel very comfortable with the methodology that board approved in November and HCD has since confirmed that it does in fact further state housing objectives. So we feel very gratified because the state could have come back and said we screwed up, we didn’t do the right thing. But they came back and actually validated what we sent to them, without any change.

Is there anything you’d like to add about RHNA or the housing crisis?

This is a serious issue. If there is anything one takes away from our conversation this afternoon is that this is a serious crisis for us. It’s one that I think the survival of our region depends on, because if we don’t provide enough workforce affordable housing, we’re going to continue to lose people that are talented and the jobs will follow them.

The economy of the region is at stake, and so rather than argue about numbers we want to focus on how we build workforce and affordable housing. 

The focus of our agency, and our members and our board, is to find ways to begin to build houses in our region such that we can continue to maintain the economic edge that we have, as the most economically vital region in the country.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC news intern. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.