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City council members throughout Orange County are looking to fight the state’s housing department in court after cities were mandated to zone for over 180,000 new homes in the next 8 years.

Late last month, the Orange County Council of Governments Board of Directors — a sub-regional planning organization made up of elected city officials — voted 15-0 to “authorize legal counsel to file a petition for writ of mandate” against the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) over the matter. Three board members were absent.

“HCD did not follow the statutes outlined in state law to develop the projected number of units needed in the next eight years to adequately house Orange County’s population,” reads a statement from the chair of the board and Anaheim Councilman Trevor O’Neil.

The housing amount determination was part of a cyclical process that sets housing goals for cities across the state, called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment or RHNA for short.

Fred Galante, general counsel for the organization, explained the petition is a legal challenge on how the state’s housing department came up with their allocations and said they plan to file it next week.

“HCD had to follow statutes to come up with the RHNA allocations,” Galante said in a phone interview. “We don’t believe they did it according to the statutes.”

Newport Beach Councilwoman Diane Dixon, who sits on the board, said cities in the county did not receive a fair methodology in allocating the number of homes they have to zone for.

“It’s really challenging the original process and methodology of how those numbers were assigned,” Dixon said in a phone interview.

Alicia Murillo, a spokeswoman for the state’s housing and community development department, said they do not comment on pending litigation. 

But, she said they “stand by the credibility and legality of its Regional Housing Needs Determinations for the sixth cycle housing element throughout the state, and contends that the methodology accurately captures housing needs in compliance with legislation passed in 2017 and 2018.”

Some housing advocates, like Eve Garrow with the ACLU, say there should be a focus on meeting the housing needs of low-income families, “rather than trying to skirt state mandates meant to ensure that all residents are able to live and thrive in homes they can actually afford.”

Nonetheless, the battle over housing mandates has been brewing between the state and Orange County cities for well over a year now.

It started after the state assigned the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) — made up of city council members across the region — to come up with zoning for 1.3 million homes across six counties, including OC, by 2029.

Orange County ended up with over 180,000 homes — over 75,000 of those have to be very low income to low income homes.

Homes in Newport Beach on May 18, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Some cities have to plan for thousands of homes, others are looking to zone for hundreds of homes.

Others have to decide where over 10,000 homes will go, which some city officials have previously called an impossible task.

While the OC’s Council of Governments is pushing back against the state, cities including Newport Beach are working to meet those numbers.

But it wasn’t without resistance.

Roughly half of cities in the county filed appeals with the Southern California regional board to try to bring down the number of homes they have to zone for by the 2029 deadline. 

The regional board denied all of the appeals.

Garrow questions why city officials are resisting the call to be accountable to their lower income constituents who need housing they can afford.

“What we’ve seen so far is the overproduction of very expensive housing for high income people and households and the under production of housing for low income households,” Garrow said.

Much of the uproar from the cities came over the methodology the regional board used to distribute the housing goals across Southern California.

State Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen introduced a bill this year that would allow cities to request judicial review of the methodology used to determine a city’s housing needs.

City officials all over the state are calling for greater local control on zoning and housing issues within their own borders in response to recent state legislation they say usurps their governance.

“A centralized planning agency, like Sacramento, in our opinion can not understand the different nuances between Newport Beach and Carlsbad … every city is different,” Dixon said. 

“I have to strongly emphasize no one is opposed to building more homes or affordable housing that should be left to local control who best know their communities.” 

Garrow said there needs to be stronger state leadership when it comes to addressing the shortage of subsidized affordable housing, especially in Orange County.

“Local governments have done an abysmal job meeting the needs of low income households for safe, affordable housing,” Garrow said.

Dixon said there are many contributing factors that increase the cost of homes, including environmental laws that delay building.

Meanwhile, County residents have identified housing and homelessness as the most important issues, according to the 2020 Orange County Annual Survey conducted by Chapman University.

“Surveys reflect the reality which is that large swathes of our population in Orange County are truly suffering because they lack access to safe, affordable housing. This is why again and again, this issue comes up as a top concern for Orange County residents,” Garrow said.

Garrow said there is a pattern between the overproduction of high income homes and the homeless crisis.

“We have people living in cars, on the streets and in mass shelters instead of in safe, affordable homes and it needs to end. Every level of government needs to play a role in addressing these inequities including our local governments. The issue for me is that they haven’t done it.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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