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California

Coastal cities give in to growth. Southern California favors less housing in Inland Empire

A housing project  under construction in downtown Los Angeles.
A housing project under construction in downtown Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

In a dramatic shift to how Southern California cities plan to grow over the next decade, a regional agency decided Thursday to push for more housing in coastal rather than inland communities.

Under the plan, communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties will have to accommodate more than 1 million new houses — more than triple the amount of both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Culver City, for example, will have to zone for 3,300 new homes, more than double the number than under an alternative plan, which would have given a much larger responsibility for new housing to the Inland Empire.

“This is a moment of our growing up,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said after the vote. “I understand the fear where people are like: ‘No, just keep [housing] out and maybe my traffic won’t get worse.’ Well, we’ve tried that for three decades and it’s failed. This is a new beginning.”

Thursday’s vote by the Southern California Assn. of Governments was required under a 50-year-old state law, which tells cities and counties to plan every eight years for enough growth in their communities to meet projected population increases and to account for other factors that could indicate a need for more development.

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The law has been criticized as toothless because it does not ensure the construction of planned housing. But it could push local governments to zone for more growth than they’d like because it mandates that there be enough land to meet the state’s housing projections.

Those advocating for growth along the coast on Thursday cited a desire to build more housing near transit and jobs centers, meeting the intense demand for new homes and reducing the long commutes that lead to increased carbon emissions.

Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells said she supported the coastal plan because climate change is an emergency.

“This is the Titanic,” Sahli-Wells said during the meeting. “It is not too late to steer away from death.”

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In contrast, officials from communities that wanted more growth inland cited the already exorbitant housing costs along the coast in cities with little vacant land. Peggy Huang, a member of the Yorba Linda City Council in Orange County, said higher-density housing is likely to be too expensive for many residents and so the region should work instead to encourage job growth in more far-flung areas where it’s more affordable.

“We should be encouraging companies to go out there,” Huang said. “Don’t look at us. Go over there.”

Thursday’s vote comes amid months of intense wrangling, both between Gov. Gavin Newsom and officials in Southern California, and among cities in the region.

Representatives from local governments make up the board of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a public agency that represents 19 million residents in Los Angeles, Orange, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The choice they faced was stark.

In the plan that would have pushed growth to the Inland Empire, the desert city of Coachella would have had to zone to accommodate 15,100 new homes while Orange County’s Huntington Beach would have to set aside enough land for 3,600. The alternative plan that sends more growth toward the coast requires Coachella to plan for 7,800 houses while Huntington Beach will be responsible for 13,300 homes.

Overall, the coastal-growth plan will require Los Angeles and Orange counties to plan for 124,000 additional houses compared to the alternative plan, which largely would have shifted those homes to Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

There is still a long way before cities and counties will have to rezone land to accommodate the new housing figures, though. The California Department of Housing and Community Development now must review the approved plan. The Southern California Assn. of Governments also agreed to examine an alternative put forward by members of the L.A. City Council that could push even more growth toward the coast. The regional agency hopes to finalize the formula early next year.

But in the meantime, Newsom and other state officials are likely to welcome Thursday’s decision. They have been encouraging local governments to zone for a lot more housing, especially near jobs and transit.

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Led by Orange County representatives, the Southern California Assn. of Governments told the state in June that the agency would like to zone for only 430,000 new homes through 2029. At the time, local government officials lambasted the state for pushing policies that would diminish their power, including a now-stalled bill that would have required cities to allow greater development in many neighborhoods zoned only for single-family homes and those near transit lines. They worried that a large allocation from the state would provide momentum for those policies.

Newsom responded two months later by tripling the region’s housing allocation to 1.3 million homes.

Since then, Los Angeles city officials have gotten much more involved in the planning effort, arguing that neighboring job-rich communities along the coast needed to accept more housing. On Thursday, Garcetti and 11 council members showed up to vote in favor of the coastal-growth option. At the June vote, only Councilman David Ryu attended the meeting.

Traditionally, Southern California has responded to growth mandates by pushing homes toward the Inland Empire. But that stance was increasingly becoming untenable, said Bill Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Development Report and author of “The Reluctant Metropolis,” a book on growth in the region.

Fulton said demands to increase housing density because of climate change and to increase investments in transit rather than new highways have created a new voting bloc. That paved the way for Los Angeles officials to align with representatives from the Inland Empire to approve the coastal-growth option on Thursday.

“If there is a tacit agreement on the part of elected officials in the region to push the growth to L.A. and Orange County,” Fulton said, “that’s unprecedented certainly with respect to housing.”


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