More cities than ever are protesting RHNA allocation of homes they’ve been told to plan for


Faced with housing goals they say are unachievable and a fall deadline to plan for them, more Southern California cities than ever before are fighting to have their allocations of new homes rolled back.

No one denies the region needs more homes in general, and there’s been a specific push to get housing for low-income families built across the region.

But some city leaders say the 1.34 million new units assigned to the six-county area (including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties) is wildly overinflated, and there’s no place in their communities to shoehorn the hundreds or thousands of additional homes they’re currently mandated to put in their plans.

Nearly four dozen local governments are appealing to have their housing numbers reduced in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process, or RHNA (pronounced “reena”). After two days of hearings, the appeal committee of the Southern California Association of Governments, or SCAG, had granted only one request; hearings continue through Jan. 22.

Where to build

Every eight years, the state sets a target for meeting housing needs, and each community is given a share of the total and required to ensure, via zoning, that there are places the homes could be built. The planning process has existed for decades, but this time the target is the biggest it’s ever been – and with new laws and an overall housing shortage and consistent shortfalls in middle- and lower-income categories, local officials worry they can no longer get by on promises alone.

As Yorba Linda Councilwoman Peggy Huang put it at a Wednesday, Jan. 6, appeal hearing, state legislators no longer expect the process “to be just a planning tool, they’re expecting us to build it.”

Click here for a city-by-city list of appeal requests

With the allocations set to become final as soon as next month, 47 of the 191 cities and six counties in the region are appealing to SCAG to reduce their numbers, “which is the highest I think we’ve ever had,” Executive Director Kome Ajise said.

Most of the objections – 45 of 51 total appeals – come from within Los Angeles and Orange counties, where some officials have been complaining since fall 2019 that they were given a disproportionate burden, to the benefit of inland counties that have more available land.

But those open spaces to the east aren’t always close to jobs, and building there leaves more people commuting on already-packed freeways – which runs counter to state climate goals.

“I think just about every city always has constraints,” Ajise said. “It’s a little bit of a policy shift for a lot of cities every time they have to do this, so there is pushback.”

Fair allocation?

Cities can’t ensure housing gets built – that’s mainly up to developers and the market – but state law requires them to show they’ve planned for additional homes at a variety of income levels and designated where they could be built. For many, this will likely mean a shift to allowing more multi-story, multi-family complexes.

Most of the cities asking for a reduced number of homes hit on similar themes in their appeal requests: there’s no land available; water and sewer systems can’t handle what’s proposed; and added homes would be disproportionate to or too far from jobs.

Some beach cities also argued they’re limited by the state Coastal Commission, which can approve or reject proposed development along the shore (the coastal zone’s land width can range between a few hundred feet and several miles). Cities with large open spaces or bordering wildlands argued the risk of fires limits where they can develop.

In Los Angeles County, the city of San Fernando asked to have 500 homes trimmed from its allocation of 1,791 new units, arguing in its appeal the city is “completely built-out, with a lack of developable land, and a dilapidated and under-sized public infrastructure that strains to handle increased development pressures.”

Alhambra, which is seeking to slash more than half its allotment of 6,808 new units, said the city’s lack of jobs and transit mean the full allocation “would encourage long drive times and … conflict with the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.”

Very little pushback is coming from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which only filed a half-dozen appeals between them.

“The Orange County and Los Angeles cities are appealing because they’re getting numbers that they don’t like,” said Desert Hot Springs Councilman Russell Betts, who represents Riverside County on the appeals committee. “There was a significant shift in this RHNA process to put the housing where the jobs are.”

In past cycles, having empty land seemed like the main criteria for where to propose homes, Betts said, which disproportionately burdened the Inland area.

Riverside and San Bernardino county cities may still see their numbers as out of reach, but “Orange County and Los Angeles are now getting an equitable distribution,” Betts said, whereas before, “they were all getting dumped on the outlying areas.”

A number of cities made a broader argument, that the state’s projections of the number of homes needed are simply wrong, and pointed to two recent studies finding fault with the state’s calculations. In its appeal, Pico Rivera said the state’s numbers were “inconsistent with growth forecasts at regional, state and federal levels.”

“They started with the wrong data,” said Mission Viejo Councilman Brian Goodell. His city’s appeal argued that the state double-counted the number of homes needed, which means cities’ allocations are twice what they ought to be.

“We’re saying we understand the process, we understand the methodology – let’s get the numbers right,” he said.

Zero-sum game

After two day of hearings that began Wednesday, Jan. 6, few of the appellants went away happy; the committee rejected all appeals except for one from Riverside County regarding its unincorporated areas. A final decision on everyone’s numbers still rests with the full SCAG board, which includes representatives for all of the member governments.

While more appeals were filed this time compared with the last planning cycle, it’s perhaps not surprising that just one has been granted so far. Ajise said no city that appealed got its numbers reduced in the 2013 round.

And the state has already said no to SCAG’s request to lower the number of homes allotted to Southern California, so if one city in the region gets fewer units, another city would have to be given more.

“The thing to know is this is a zero-sum game,” Ajise said. “Whatever numbers we grant on appeal will have to be assigned to someone else.”

Cities have until October to show the state how they plan to reach their housing target (Ajise said the state declined SCAG’s request for a six-month extension) – and those that whiff the deadline risk fines or the loss of some local control over housing.

Ajise said in the long run, the stakes are higher than that. While some cities argued in their appeals that the pandemic’s impacts have slowed growth of the state’s population, Ajise said there’s still a net inflow, and Southern California was already behind in meeting the need for housing.

“We need housing to the point that it’s become an existential issue for our economy,” he said.

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