Orange County city officials are adopting updated housing plans that together will have cities zone for almost over 180,000 new homes in roughly the next eight years amid pressure from state officials to address California’s housing shortage.

Over 75,000 of those homes have to be designated for very low income to low income households. 

But it comes as some OC city officials say they have run out of space to build new housing and are scratching their heads over where to zone for the mandated housing units.

City officials across the county have to zone for those homes between 2021-2029, although some have called it an impossible task.

[Read: Orange County Cities Continue Grappling With State Mandated Housing Goals This Week]

Elizabeth Hansburg, co-founder and Executive Director of People for Housing Orange County, said planning and producing housing should be a top priority.

“Housing is ground zero for how a child’s life turns out … If you have stable housing, your life outcomes are so much better than young people that live with housing instability – moving from place to place.”

Elizabeth Hansburg, co-founder and Executive Director of People for Housing Orange County, in a Tuesday phone interview

Should Cities Dictate Their Own Housing Need? 

In an effort to tackle the housing crisis, state officials have in recent years raised the pressure on local cities to zone for more housing by passing new laws and upping enforcement to make sure cities stick to their housing plans.

Newport Beach Councilman Will O’Neill said if the state was serious about housing, they would stop grants that take away housing opportunities and limit the power their own agencies have from prohibiting housing. O’Neill referenced grants aimed at preserving Banning Ranch as a public park.

“Instead, the new state legislation addressing housing strips cities of planning authority that makes parking more difficult and public services less available,” he said in an interview earlier this month.

Hansburg said that the state changes stem from the housing need and allows the state officials to hold cities accountable in a way they couldn’t before to make sure the plans translate into actual homes.

She said cities had decades of local control, but that didn’t lead to housing that would meet the needs in Orange County because some residents have spoken out against more people coming to the county and have said “not in my backyard.”

“That is a large part of why we don’t have enough new housing – the general sense of the othering,” she said.

But many OC city council members say cities should be addressing their own housing needs, not mandates from state officials. 

“When a new development is contemplated in or around a neighborhood, residents naturally expect that they can speak to their local city council … A mayor is a whole lot easier to get on the phone than the governor. Cities should have an overriding say on what happens in their borders.”

Newport Beach Councilman Will O’Neill

Regardless, city council members like O’Neill are looking to meet the state’s goal and avoid penalties that could lead to a loss of state grant money, along with legal action.

OC Officials Push Back on Housing Goals

Amid the pressure, local city officials have tried to push back on the number of homes they’ve been mandated to find space for by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) – a board made up of elected officials from the region.

The state assigned the regional board to figure out where over 1.3 million homes will go in Southern California. In turn, the board assigned cities across OC to zone for nearly 200,000 homes.

Officials in roughly half of the county’s cities filed appeals to bring their mandated housing numbers down and some criticized the methodology used to divide the number of homes across cities in the region.

SCAG denied all those appeals.

“The housing element process was a political and practical mess,” O’Neill said. “More units were foisted on coastal cities thanks to backroom deals at SCAG. Then various state agencies donated taxpayer money to help purchase Banning Ranch, despite a small portion of that area being considered for housing. The state’s various competing priorities have placed cities in nearly-impossible situations.”

Meanwhile, some advocates argue the housing shortage is helping fuel the county’s homelessness crisis and could lead to other issues.

“​​What I think this county needs more than anything is affordable housing at the low and very low income level, which is really workforce housing for people in service sector jobs and first time home buyer opportunities,” Hansburg said.

[Read: Seeing Slow Homelessness Progress, Some Ask: What’s the Point to OC’s Point-in-Time Count?]

Hansburg said without new affordable housing, Orange County risks losing much of its workforce.

She also said inclusionary housing policies could help produce affordable housing in cities throughout OC. Those policies usually mandate a portion of new housing developments be geared for low-income residents.

Orange County Cities Move Forward With Housing Plans

Earlier this month several cities in Orange County adopted their housing plans– some a couple days shy of the state’s deadline.

So far, 22 cities have adopted updated housing plans including San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Beach and Rancho Santa Margarita, according to a Wednesday email from Alicia Murillo, a spokesperson for the state’s department of Housing and Community Development.

But just because a city adopts their housing element does not necessarily mean their plan is finalized at the state level and could be subject to further revisions.

Even after adoption, the state can still have cities go back and tweak their plans to meet their requirements before they certify the plans. 

In fact, according to Murillo, so far no city in Orange County has a compliant plan just yet.

Newport Beach 

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

Newport Beach city council members voted unanimously earlier this month to approve the housing element, which features 4,396 affordable homes for low, very low and moderate income communities.

O’Neill said the city will focus on rezoning to add more homes in the limited land space.

“Most likely, we will see a heavy emphasis on mixed-use developments and overlay zones that ensure that housing is spread out and not overly concentrated,” O’Neill said in the interview earlier this month.

This includes 976 new affordable units near John Wayne Airport – the largest of the focus areas in the city.

Although the Airport Land Use Commission determined this area is too noisy for new housing, the council chose to overrule the determination and plans for housing in the area.

Other sites for housing in the city include Banning Ranch, Coyote Canyon, West Newport, Dover-Westcliff, Newport Center and utilizing granny flats.

Seal Beach

Earlier this month, Seal Beach city council members voted 4-1 to adopt their updated housing plans for the 2021-2029 cycle. 

Councilwoman Schelly Sustarsic was the dissenting vote and said at the Feb. 7 meeting that she had issues with the Old Ranch Country Club being considered for a housing site and asked for it to be removed from the plan.

Other council members said they needed to submit their plan and continue on with the process so they could hear back from the state.

Seal Beach officials are tasked with figuring out where 1,243 homes will go in their city – of which 258 units have to be for very low income families and 201 have to be for low income families.

Orange 

Orange city officials unanimously approved the housing element earlier this month, which details the zoning for 3,936 new housing units at varying price points — 1,671 units will be set aside for low and very low income residents, while 2,265 units will be created for moderate and above moderate income residents.

Officials identified 47 sites to potentially build new affordable housing in Orange.

The additions will include opportunities for accessory dwelling units and short-term rentals even though the city has discussed restrictions against these structures at length in the past.

Homes in Orange County. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Yorba Linda

The Yorba Linda City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to adopt their housing element at a special meeting.

Yorba Linda has to zone for 2,415 homes – 765 of which have to be for very low income families and 451 for low income families. 

It was also one of the cities that pushed back against their allocation, but was denied by SCAG.

“We fought the good fight,” said Councilman Gene Hernandez during the meeting. “This was foisted upon us by the state. I think we reacted in a responsible manner. We took it seriously and I think we have done a good job.”

Don Lamm, a real estate expert who has worked for four different cities in the county, said the state has put more of the burden on providing housing on cities.

“It’s unfair for local government to be expected to solve a problem that to a great extent the state has created,” he said at the meeting. “The state needs to be held accountable to some degree for the housing problems.”

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

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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