SoCal Has To Plan For 1.3 Million New Homes. But Where Should They Go? 

A tent encampment in the shadow of an under-construction apartment building in Hollywood, CA. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

In the midst of California's deepening housing crisis, the state has given Southern California a big task: Plan for at least 1.3 million new homes by 2029.

But where to put all those new homes has been a contentious question.

At a regional planning meeting last week, local representatives rejected an initial proposal to concentrate growth in the Inland Empire, instead voting to put more homes near major job centers and transit lines in L.A. and Orange counties.

WHY 1.3 MILLION HOMES?

Under state law, each region has to plan every eight years for new housing. That means figuring out how many homes are needed to meet the needs of the population, and where, and then asking cities to zone for them.

Here, that job goes to the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a planning body made up of local representatives across six counties: L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial and Ventura.

Originally, SCAG told the state it only wanted to plan for about 430,000 new homes by 2029. But state housing officials said we needed triple that amount — 1.3 million new homes.

That level of homebuilding would be a major change for sprawling Southern California, a region that has for decades failed to build enough housing to keep up with population growth.

Housing advocates argue this shortage is the root cause of the region's homelessness, sky-high rents and home prices, and the exodus of middle-class Californians to cheaper states like Texas and Arizona.

THE PLAN THAT LOST: BUILDING FURTHER INLAND

At last week's meeting, SCAG had to decide how to divvy up the state's goal of 1.3 million new homes across Southern California cities. They had two options on the table.

SCAG's initial plan would have focused new homes in the Inland Empire, while setting fairly low housing goals for many wealthy, coastal communities.

For example, the city of Coachella would've been asked to plan for more than 15,000 homes over the next eight years. Meanwhile, Laguna Beach — with half the population of Coachella — would've been given a goal of just 55 new homes over that same time period.

See how many homes each city is now asked to plan for (10/7 substitute motion) compared to the original proposal. Source: scag.ca.gov.

UCLA urban planning professor Paavo Monkkonen said the original methodology, which relies on population projections, tends to reward cities that have historically resisted new housing. Without new housing, a city's population doesn't grow, creating a kind of feedback loop: Restrictive zoning in the past leads to less zoning for homes in the future.

"Current local zoning plays a big role in their expected (population) growth," Monkkonen said. "Cities that don't want housing were able to project very low growth and get a very low housing number."

Other critics of the original plan said it would have forced residents to live farther inland, potentially away from their jobs near the coast. They argued that would extend commutes, add cars to congested freeways and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu tore into the plan. He said that limiting housing options for lower-income residents in coastal areas amounted to "economic redlining."

"The only people this allocation serves are the wealthy cities in Orange County and the Westside, who have all the jobs and all the places where people want to live, but expect far-flung desert cities to build all the housing," Ryu said.

In the end, Ryu's preference won. The plan was scrapped.

THE WINNING PLAN: BUILD CLOSER TO JOBS AND TRANSIT

The alternative plan, which was passed by SCAG members 43-19, places more homes near major job centers and transit lines — in effect, concentrating new housing in coastal Los Angeles and Orange County.

Local officials who received bigger housing goals under the new plan were split. Some said they welcomed the change.

Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells said Westside cities that have seen major tech employers moving in with big expansion plans now need to build housing for workers at all income levels.

"We cannot attract teachers to our excellent Culver City Unified School District, because they can't live within three hours of our city. It is a crisis," Sahli-Wells said.

Most of the 19 representatives who voted against the new plan were from Orange County, a region where new housing development is often met with fierce opposition from local voters.

The new plan increases Orange County's overall goal by about 75,000 units. Some high-income communities that have fought growth in the past will see a big rise in the number of homes they have to plan for.

Huntington Beach is expected to zone for 13,321 homes under the plan. Under the initial goal, it would have been required to zone for just 3,612 new homes.

Yorba Linda's number went from 207 new homes to 2,322.

Yorba Linda City Councilmember Peggy Huang voted against the plan. Her proposal to address the imbalance between where people work and where they can afford to live: Tell employers to move to the Inland Empire.

"In Orange County and Los Angeles, where it's job rich, we should be encouraging companies to go out there. Don't look at us. Go over there," Huang said.

Other local officials said the new housing goals would be impossible to meet.

Downey City Councilmember Sean Ashton said his city has "no room to build." The new plan bumps Downey's housing goal from 2,773 to 6,552 new units.

"I don't know where we're going to do that," Ashton said. "So my question really is, what happens when we don't make these numbers?"

SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

These city-by-city goals are not yet set in stone. The state's housing department has 60 days to review the plan. Then, cities will have a chance to appeal their allocations. The final numbers won't come out until next year.

There's also no guarantee that any of this new housing will actually get built — just that cities have to plan for it. In the past, most cities have not faced repercussions for failing to meet their housing goals.