Housing style currently not allowed under most Orange County zoning laws. Credit: Pixabay

Everyone has to live somewhere, but your millennial kids and grandkids keep choosing Phoenix, Nashville, and Seattle over Orange County, California. Why?

Don’t they know about the 100+ degree average summer temperatures in Phoenix? Or about the tornadoes and allergens in Nashville? Or about the rain and gloom (and grunge bands!) in Seattle?

Yes. Yes, they do. They know about all those detractors, but in the end, they just don’t have a choice—because everyone has to live somewhere and there is nowhere for them to live in California. 

Governor Newsom himself recognized this problem a few weeks ago while touting a project to build 4,000 new housing units in the Bay Area. And thanks to those new units, California will only need 3,496,000 more units by the year 2025 to meet the existing housing needs of the state’s current population.

Missed it by that much, Mr. Governor.

So, while your favorite newscasters screech about tax refugees fleeing to well-known conservative tax havens like Portland and while the gubernatorial hopeful Caitlyn Jenner empathetically explains the emotional burden of seeing unhoused people on the street faced by the person who owns the private hanger adjacent to hers, the actual problem lurks just below the surface: everyone has to live somewhere and there are no more houses to live in here in California.

The reasons for this housing shortage are numerous, multifaceted, and complicated.

A lifeguard tower in Huntington Beach, CA—a city larger than all but 20 state capitols. Credit: Jessica Lewis

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) makes the construction of new housing units cumbersome, and the long compliance delays reduce the profitability of these new projects, though SB7 is a beginning effort to speed the process up. Cities like Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley have passed zoning laws to maintain their “idyllic” suburban nature despite being located in the heart of the 6th most populous county in the entire United States. For context, Huntington Beach is larger than all but 20 state capitols yet still pretends to be a sleepy little beach community. And Proposition 13 incentivizes homeowners to sit on their existing properties as either their primary homes or as income properties, keeping them well past a retirement age at which people would traditionally place their large homes on the market to secure their financial futures. This process would usually allow those in starter homes to move into larger family homes, those renting to invest in starter homes, and those currently living at home or unable to rent to find rental properties. 

Work has already been done to improve the CEQA, but it still isn’t perfect and countless municipal and county environmental approval processes still move too slowly to encourage new construction projects. With new funding to increase their workforce and develop new technological efficiency, these regulatory offices could dramatically speed up approval processes. Further, placing time limits on how long the approval process can take would enable investors to prepare financially before undertaking a new project. 

Zoning laws still stand to prevent the construction of the units necessary to meet the state’s 3.5 million unit housing deficit. This is in large part because existing laws help preserve the archetypal image of suburban living—detached homes with a white picket fence, a front lawn and driveway, and something close to 1.3 dogs. But fetishizing this singular model means there simply won’t be enough homes. The truth is that we simply cannot build enough detached homes in suburban tracks with street names taken from the National Audubon Society or from local foliage. And without more housing on the market, the only choice for your children and grandchildren will be to find housing elsewhere.

Now, this doesn’t mean that cities like Huntington Beach or Westminster or Laguna Beach have to build new, 20-story apartment buildings that would feel at home in midtown Manhattan.  But it may mean opening the zoning laws to allow for denser housing options like duplexes, quadplexes, rowhouses, and, yes, even some apartment buildings.  

This will certainly bring change to our cities; there is no denying it. Suppose, though, that the choice is between somewhat more crowded arterial surface streets and your kids moving to Houston.  Isn’t traffic the better option? And this ignores the reality that something can be done about that traffic, as well (spoiler alert: public transit!).

The San Diego Trolley public transportation system which could be imitated to connect Orange County more effectively. Credit: Jose Chavez

What it seems we can do nothing about is Proposition 13—California’s landmark ballot initiative which locks property tax rates to the sale price of a property rather than to its value as reassessed over time. In hindsight, allowing people to buy a house for $150,000 and eventually bring in over $4,000 a month in rental income while only paying $1,700 a year in property taxes may not have been the best idea for a housing-starved state. Still, the solution likely cannot be to raise taxes dramatically on millions of California’s homeowners. 

Multifaceted issues require multifaceted solutions.

These multifaceted housing issues can all be overcome with straight forward policy prescriptions including increased funding for quicker CEQA review, adjusting existing zoning laws to allow for new housing, and reconsidering Proposition 13 which incentivizes hoarding property, but if they aren’t, the reality will continue to set in that everyone has to live somewhere and your kids and grandkids will need to plan on being renters for life—or call you from Austin on holidays.

Justin Speak is a pastor in Fountain Valley, California who is passionate about seeing justice achieved in Orange County.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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