Cities throughout Golden State – especially Southern California – are wrestling with meeting state-mandated housing numbers, greenlighting developments that can alter skylines and downtowns.
Yet just how fair are the mandate numbers?
Fullerton and Orange are two Orange County college towns similar in physical size and population, but there’s a massive difference when it comes to the state mandated number of homes officials in each city have to plan for by 2029.
Officials in Fullerton – with a population of 140,541 – have been tasked with zoning for 13,209 new homes, with over 5,100 of that for very low and low income families.
Meanwhile, officials in Orange – with a population of 136,178 – have to zone for 3,936 new homes, with over 1,600 of that for very low and low income families.
Elizabeth Hansburg, co-founder of People for Housing, pointed out the similarities between the two cities in a phone interview in April.
“They’re similar in that they both have a train station. They both have a college. They have roughly the same number of residents. They’re roughly the same size. They both have two freeways that they’re accessible to and so it is quizzical why Fullerton is about 13,000 and Orange is only about 4,000,” Hansburg said.
Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung said the housing distribution in a process called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) was not very equitable.
“I think there needs to be a balance and the state and these RHNA numbers that we are being tasked with are completely out of balance, in particular for our city,” he said in a phone interview.
Jung adds zoning for over 13,000 homes in Fullerton is basically an impossible task and questions what that will mean for open space in a city that is already seeing areas become “park deserts.”
“We all have to acknowledge 13,000 units in a city that’s almost 150 years old – Where are you going to find the space?” he asked. “How are we supposed to make this happen?”
A Flawed Process?
State auditors also criticized the state’s formula last year, saying they found several problems with it that can impact the mandated housing numbers – especially the ability to review the assessments from the state Housing and Community Development Department.
“HCD does not have a formal review process to ensure that these important housing needs assessments are as accurate as possible,” the auditors wrote.
In a March 2022 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michael Tildan – acting state auditor at the time – said the state housing department “does not satisfactorily review its needs assessments to ensure that staff accurately enter data when they calculate how much housing local governments must plan to build.”
Orange City Councilwoman Arianna Barrios said for her city the number is fair, realistic and attainable – but the process hasn’t been fair if you look at it city by city.
“That sounds pretty extreme, but I don’t know what the circumstances are behind it,” she said about Fullerton’s allocation.
The disparity in housing goals comes as California officials up the pressure on local officials across the state to zone for 2.5 million new homes by the turn of the decade in an effort to address a housing unaffordability crisis.
In Orange County, local officials have to adopt housing plans approved by the state that zone for over 180,000 new homes – and 75,000 of them have to be designated for very low and low income families.
That means a single person making less than $80,400 qualifies for low income housing, according to limits from the state Housing and Community Development Department.
A family of four, a common benchmark in housing, qualifies for low income housing if the household makes less than $114,800 a year.
Mandates Face Questions, Resistance
The state-mandated housing numbers have faced immense pushback from local officials across the county, most notably with Huntington Beach City Council members and Sacramento suing each other over the laws.
Many local officials in OC pushed back against the formula used to divide the housing goals across Southern California, calling it an arbitrary process that didn’t take into account input and concerns from local leaders.
Barrios said there needs to be transparency on how the housing goals are being allocated and city officials deserve to see how the numbers were assigned.
“The whole system has to be looked at,” she said. “All of us want transparency. We all know that the numbers are inflated -they are radically inflated. But what none of us have been able to see is how did you get there?”
Hansburg says the formula raises a lot of questions.
“The methodology of how these numbers got distributed and broken down is admittedly mysterious. It’s very hard to understand and it can leave one scratching their head,” she said.
Alicia Murillo, a spokeswoman for the State’s Housing and Community Development Department, did not respond to emailed questions last week.
Fullerton was among many cities that pushed back on their housing allocations.
Despite concerns with the process, Jung acknowledges the need for affordable housing and said elected officials have a responsibility to ensure the next generation can afford a place to live.
“It is because local leaders have made a choice for decades not to build, that the state representatives have now stepped in and said we’re going to dictate building,” he said.
Still Jung called on state officials to try and work with the city to realistically meet those goals.
Barrios said there are a number of projects in the works for low income families and that her city has done a good job of creating new homes.
Fullerton and Orange Could See Forced Developments
There are about 51,000 housing units currently in Fullerton while in Orange there are close to 48,000 housing units, according to state data on the Fullerton city website.
Neither city has their housing plans certified by the state.
And while the two cities share a lot in common, they took two very different approaches to their housing plans.
In Fullerton – like many other OC cities, officials are reluctantly trying to meet their goals.
“The vast majority of us are struggling to try and make this work,” Jung said. “The State has got a backlog of these so I wouldn’t see us being in compliance in terms of our housing element until either late this year or early next year.”
In Orange, developers and advocates called out local officials for trying to sidestep housing mandates by zoning on land that’s already developed with long-term leases.
Those complaints led the state’s housing and community development department to reject Orange’s housing plan.
Barrios said they have been working with and had several conversations with the state housing department since then and are hopeful their plan will be approved.
Cities without state certified housing plans are vulnerable to a once-obscure law known as Builder’s Remedy.
Under that law, a developer may sidestep city approvals to construct a housing development as long as 20% of the project’s homes are affordable housing.
Developers are looking to use the law in Orange.
Barrios said it feels like the city is being held hostage during this housing cycle.
“We’re being put in the path of some developers who are unsavory in their tactics,” she said. “Nobody can make sound public policy with a gun to their head. You just can’t and that’s what we’re being asked to do right now.”
“There has got to be a better compromise and a better middle ground.”
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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