In their fight to expand housing access in objecting localities like Huntington Beach, California legislators have run into a Marin County problem.
It’s one of the richest areas in the U.S., and gets special legislative protection from housing construction mandates by Sacramento.
And that, in turn, is being used to undermine pushes for more homebuilding elsewhere in the Golden State.
In Huntington Beach, an iconic surfing town that, like every city, must make way for more dwellings, officials are pushing back against what they contend to be the forced urbanization of a suburban coastal community.
The city’s new Republican elected council majority contends that Sacramento’s affordable housing charge isn’t spread all that fairly across California.
They’ve often pointed to Marin – Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home county in the San Francisco Bay Area – whose suburban-minded residents enjoy less neighbors, despite bordering a major metropolitan hub, due to lower state standards for housing density.
After a push by residents and local leaders, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed that lower standard into law in 2014, reclassifying the county from ‘metropolitan’ to ‘suburban’ under government planning and land use code.
In doing so, Brown lowered the state’s density requirement on future housing projects from 30 units per acre to 20 for the years 2015 to 2023.
In 2017, the state legislature approved an extension of that Marin County protection to 2028.
At a news conference called after filing a lawsuit earlier this month, one face of Surf City’s push for more local control had this question:
“How can the statewide housing crisis be a matter of statewide concern,” asked City Council member Casey McKeon to reporters on March 9, “when Marin County is exempt from affordable housing requirements?”
On this point, even the fiercest of proponents for new home building can agree.
“I think it is unfair. It certainly seems to sort of follow the adage, ‘Whoever has the gold makes the rules,’” said Elizabeth Hansburg, a regional housing construction proponent and co-founder of People For Housing Orange County.
“And the wealthy and powerful in Marin County have managed to exempt themselves from the mandates that befall the rest of us.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average median income in Marin County is $131,008, while the average in OC is $100,485.
Huntington Beach has to zone for 13,368 homes with a population of close to 200,000 people. All the cities of Marin County have just a little over 14,400 to collectively shoot for, with a total population of more than 260,000 people.
Orange County overall has been tasked with zoning for over 180,000 homes in a region of roughly 3.2 million people.
The lower density standards on Marin County can effectively constrict the size of new housing projects.
In a Monday emailed statement, Alicia Murillo, a spokesperson for the state’s Housing and Community Development Agency, said the 2014 and 2017 legislation “did not reduce any community’s [housing construction[ target. It only changed how that [target] would be met.”
Hansburg, also a former Fullerton Planning Commission chair, is what you might call a YIMBY – a term shortened for ‘Yes in My Backyard’ and coined in opposition to NIMBYs.
“That said, the reality is that the critical mass of jobs, of infrastructure that supports people, is on the coast,” Hansburg said in a Monday phone interview. “So it’s not unreasonable that coastal communities are asked to upzone and densify.”
She comes from the viewpoint that new housing opportunities can only exist in coastal communities – a critical mass of jobs and infrastructure – through state intervention.
“That’s not going to happen naturally,” she said.
For Huntington Beach officials, such intervention constitutes a war on suburbia and the way it lives, like the automobile, which Mayor Tony Strickland has routinely mentioned in various public remarks this year.
“It really is a war against suburbia. It’s a war against the automobile. The fact of the matter is it’s not an accident that here in California we have the highest gas tax in the country, we have the highest car registration fees,” Mayor Tony Strickland said at last week’s city council meeting.
“People asked me to fight and do whatever I could to fight to preserve Huntington Beach, the way it is – the suburban wonderful community that it is – people in Huntington Beach don’t want an urban community.”
Strickland also called out the burden to zone for a large amount of housing in his city versus the burden on Marin County.
“It’d be one thing if the governor equally put these units on to all the cities across California in terms of the housing crisis,” he said. “95% of the population lives in 5% of the area space in California, and the governor has no incentives – again – no incentives to do developing in those other areas.”
City Officials Comply With ‘Unfair’ Mandates
While Huntington Beach is taking state officials to court over the state mandates housing goals, other cities are reluctantly complying and trying to get their housing plans certified by the state.
[Read: Half of Orange County Lacks State Approved Housing Plans as HB Reignites Debate on Mandates]
Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung said in a Thursday phone interview he doesn’t fault Huntington Beach councilmembers for doing “what they feel was necessary,” but it’s not a policy of his to use taxpayer money to sue the state.
“There are ways that we can, through best practices and even more importantly, best efforts, try to meet the state mandates. I don’t know that the goal should be to get there. I think the goal should be to find ways to make every attempt to get there,” he said.
Jung said the state’s actions at times are heavy handed and doesn’t agree with the allocation of the over 13,000 homes they have to zone for in his city.
At the same time, he acknowledged that if there had been more affordable development in cities, they wouldn’t have received this much pressure from the state.
“If you want local control,” he said. “Affordable housing can’t just be limited to senior housing. You have to find affordability in your housing element, in your general plan.”
“Because cities were not doing that, the state takes the ball away from you and says it’s our turn now.”
In Costa Mesa, Mayor John Stephens shared similar sentiments in a Thursday phone interview.
“Everybody likes local control, but the fact of the matter is there are a lot of cities that if they had local control then they’d just wouldn’t move forward and develop housing and that creates a problem regionally,” he said. “Then that regional problem also impacts Costa Mesa.”
One of those problems, he said, is homelessness – a crisis that advocates have for years said has been fueled by a lack of affordable housing.
At the same time, Stephens doesn’t think the 11,760 homes Costa Mesa has been tasked to zone for is realistic.
“There’s no possible way that over 11,000 units can be constructed within eight years in the City of Costa Mesa, that’s not realistic,” he said. “To put it in perspective, there are about 40,000 housing units in Costa Mesa.”
Officials in both Fullerton and Costa Mesa, as well as other OC cities, took a stand against the number of housing they were tasked with zoning for and filed appeals with the regional board of elected officials tasked with divvying up the goals amongst cities in Southern California.
That Board, the Southern California Association of Governments, denied all the appeals.
“The basis of our appeal was that the formula used to achieve that (number) was arbitrary,” Stephens said.
“However, we’re moving forward in good faith with the housing element and we’re going to do our best to provide the framework so that units can be built in Costa Mesa that are necessary to serve the city and make housing more affordable in the city.”
The state auditors also called out the state’s formula used to divide up the housing goals in a report last year.
[Read: CA Auditor Bashes State’s Mandated Housing Numbers, Says Process Is Flawed, Lacks Oversight]
And the Orange County Council of Governments decided to take the state’s housing and community development department to court in 2021 over the housing goals but that lawsuit ended up getting tossed out.
The council filed an appeal in December 2021.
As far as urbanization in Surf City?
That ship has sailed if you ask Hansburg.
“Have you seen downtown?” Hansburg said. “They have marketed themselves as an urban destination … They may not want to admit it, but it’s already there.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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