California’s elected leaders talk a good game on climate change, sustainability and the housing crisis. But when it comes to actually changing the sprawling land-use patterns that have clogged the freeways, multiplied greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbated economic inequality and sent the cost of housing sky high, they’ve been MIA.
Case in point: On Thursday, the Southern California Assn. of Governments is poised to adopt a housing plan that would encourage even more sprawl by putting much of the responsibility for developing new housing on communities in the Inland Empire instead of those in the Westside, South Bay and Orange County coastal areas where the shortage is most acute.
The vote is a critical moment for Southern California and, really, a test for the state.
Are we serious about fighting climate change and curtailing vehicle emissions that are warming the planet? Do we care about the prosperity of the state, which is threatened when workers can’t afford homes and companies can’t find workers? Are we willing to make room for more homes in our communities so the next generation of Californians have the opportunity to thrive?
These are the questions that should be front and center for SCAG, which is Southern California’s regional planning association. It’s made up of elected officials from 191 cities and six Southern California counties, from Ventura to Imperial.
The vote on Thursday is required by the state’s “fair share” housing law, which instructs cities and counties to plan every eight years for enough development to house their proportion of the California’s growing population. The plans must include sufficient housing for low-income residents, not just for those who can afford market-rate rents.
Over the summer, SCAG’s governing board had to vote on the total number of homes needed to alleviate the region’s existing housing shortage and to accommodate the expected population growth. Despite the overwhelming need for more housing, anti-growth activists pressured SCAG to adopt a woefully low number. Fortunately, Gov. Newsom overruled SCAG and imposed a more ambitious target of 1.3 million new homes to be added between 2021 and 2029.
Now, SCAG has to decide how to spread the planning for 1.3 million units across the cities in its jurisdiction. And the allocations backed by a SCAG committee are, like the association’s initial, lowball housing proposal, heavily influenced by anti-growth, Not-In-My-Backyard attitudes among SCAG’s local elected leaders — especially those from more affluent cities in L.A. and Orange counties.
That’s why Beverly Hills, despite having twice as many jobs as residents and expecting a new subway line, would have to make room for fewer than 1,400 new homes, under the current plan. El Segundo, next to jobs centers like LAX and served by light rail, would be assigned just 255 new homes. Newport Beach would be allocated fewer than 3,000. By contrast, the desert city of Coachella, with fewer than 10,000 jobs and no commuter rail service, would have to plan for more than 15,000 new homes.
The proposal disproportionately assigns huge numbers of new homes to inland communities that don’t have the jobs, the infrastructure or the mass transit systems to support all that housing. Menifee would be called on to plan for roughly 12,000 homes, Hesperia 16,000 homes and Lake Elsinore 12,000 homes, even though the vast majority of existing residents in those Riverside and San Bernardino county cities drive alone to work and face median commute times of about 40 minutes.
The result? The vast majority of that housing simply wouldn’t get built because there’s no market demand, and so would do nothing to solve the region’s shortage. The housing that would get constructed would likely be occupied by people who have long commutes back to the urban core, where the bulk of Southern California’s jobs are located. That would worsen traffic and add more choking, climate-warming pollution to the air.
There are alternatives being championed by Mayor Eric Garcetti along with elected officials in Riverside and San Bernardino County, who question why their communities should have to shoulder the bulk of the region’s housing needs. SCAG’s governing board should pursue those options and direct housing development to where it’s most needed and most beneficial — in the urban core, near jobs and transit.