As new generations of Orange County come of age, more and more young people will look for apartments and first-time homes they can afford. 

A number of them will run into problems at the very start of their search, growing up in a widespread housing shortage that’s fueled high rents and homelessness throughout California.

It’s a supply-and-demand issue largely solved through building more.

But that — plus the prospect of more traffic and density — tends to raise resident objections in places like OC, with its suburban expanses, congested freeways and few convenient transit provisions, while building restrictions abound and home values stand to shift. 

Housing hinges on a town’s tolerance for density. And that can change in city council elections, which, depending on who wins office, can also shape a city’s response to the housing crisis’ symptoms. 

A majority of Santa Ana City Council members, for example, passed eviction protections and rent control last year. But this month’s election results for a time threw that continuing support into question.

Elections in a sense can change one’s monthly rent. 

They also shape future housing opportunities for those who can’t yet vote, and young people stand to lose or gain the most, said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.

“A lot of older people simply don’t understand the scope of the problem. They don’t understand that my students’ rent is more than my mortgage,” Balma said in a phone interview.  

Housing was on OC’s ballot this year in a more literal way. 

Voters Weigh in

An apartment complex in Eastside Costa Mesa on Nov. 16, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

Costa Mesa residents appear to have narrowly rejected a citywide voter initiative called Measure K, which would’ve rolled back housing construction barriers laid out in a prior citywide measure that passed in 2016 and required voter approval for certain housing developments. 

As of Nov. 16, More Costa Mesa voters sided with opponents on Measure K, with 50% of the 31,086 ballots counted so far going “No” and over 49% going “Yes.”

The prior measure, known as Measure Y, propelled a years-long debate over how much housing is too much in a city that’s grown more popular with young adults. And the number of residents facing evictions has been nearly double the countywide average, according to a City Hall information sheet from this year.

Supporters said Measure K’s loosened building curtails would reduce overcrowding, lessen the burden on people paying more than 50% of their paycheck on rent, and ensure that with the construction of new homes, their children could afford to stay in town. 

Opponents said it would subvert residents’ say and pave the way for massive new developments and influxes of new neighbors, and that more residents in town would ramp up traffic problems and impact their safety.

Critics also argued that Measure K didn’t guarantee the affordability of the housing it would’ve paved the way for. The city itself has yet to pass what’s called an inclusionary housing ordinance – a policy nearby cities use to mandate affordable housing units or pay a developer’s fee to build them elsewhere.

Fighting State Housing Mandates

A similar story played out in Yorba Linda this month, a city that regularly requires voter approval on key housing growth policy. 

But the policy in question is state-required. 

And Yorba Linda voters shot it down. 

Of the nearly 26,715 ballots counted this month, 75% of voters rejected the city’s Housing Element, a local government planning document that identifies future housing needs and areas in town to upzone for them. 

Orange County falls under the six-county Southern California Regional Association of Governments (SCAG), whose cities must send the state their housing elements every eight years to address housing demands for all levels of income.

But Yorba Linda has sent higher-density zoning changes to voters since a citizen push to do so in 2006. 

Measure Z would have rezoned 19 “opportunity” sites in Yorba Linda for more housing to meet its state assigned requirement of building 2,415 new housing units in town. 

“The state has sent down a mandate that you have to make room and plan for more housing, and the refusal by older, whiter and wealthier communities to make accommodations for the next generation is the single greatest barrier,” said Elizabeth Hansburg, a policy advocate and co-founder of People for Housing OC, in a phone interview. 

Housing advocates often characterize the other side as NIMBYs, an acronym for the phrase, “Not in My Backyard.”

“NIMBYs – homeowners who already achieved homeownership – their unwillingness to change directly affects the prospects of the next generation,” Hansburg said. “That includes young professionals, people wanting to move out of their parents’ and into their first apartment or home.”

Yorba Linda City Councilmember Peggy Huang is one subject of the nickname, as a significant voice in local objections to state-required housing goals.

Yet Huang too is irked by voters’ rejection of Yorba Linda’s housing element, which the City Council approved in April and the State of California already certified. 

Huang, who sits on SCAG, bristles at the “NIMBY” label, couching her mindset as one of development where it’s “responsible.” Likewise, in Costa Mesa, residents opposed to Measure K called their approach one of “Smart Growth.”

In Yorba Linda, Huang deemed Measure Z’s Housing Element to be an achievement of that approach. 

“These are not properties that we just said, ‘Oh, we’re going to put that in our books. And that’s that.’ We went and spoke to property owners. We were respecting property rights,” Huang said in a phone interview. 

But only 24% of the vote in Yorba Linda so far has agreed. 

Now efforts to more closely regulate development could in theory bring about the opposite result. 

While there’s another chance for Yorba Linda’s Housing Element at the ballot box in 2024, Yorba Linda’s noncompliance can bring about penalties, Huang said. 

Since 1990, California’s Housing Accountability Act (HAA) has given affordable housing developers the power to bypass the zoning laws of cities that don’t comply with the Housing Element. 

The penalty’s called “Builder’s Remedy,” and it means “by-right development, anywhere, everywhere,” Huang said. It gives developers the option to propose a housing development project that doesn’t conform with a city ‘s zoning or General Plan, as long as it’s at least 20% affordable housing.

“That was something that we tried to tell people,” Huang said.

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