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Southern California Cities Argue Over SCAG's Regional Housing Allocations

William Fulton on
Jun 1, 2000

After a delay of almost a decade, the battle over how localities in California divvy up their responsibility for low- and moderate-income housing has been joined once again. The first battlefield is metropolitan Los Angeles, where the Southern California Association of Governments is engaged in a struggle with its own members over the "Regional Housing Needs Assessment" (RHNA) process � and is lobbying the state to reduce L.A.'s overall obligation to provide low/mod housing. The SCAG battle is important statewide because the six-county SCAG region is the first in the state scheduled to move through the housing allocation process. The Association of Bay Area Governments is scheduled to follow next year with other regions of the state required to update their housing allocation in years to come. What happens at SCAG is likely to determine how seriously other regions will take the RHNA process in the future. The housing allocation effort is a state-mandated process designed to give each city and county in the state a target number of units for low/mod housing � a number that local jurisdictions then use as the basis for the housing elements of their general plans. The state gives a number to each region, and then the regional planning agency � such as SCAG � must distribute the target among all the jurisdictions in the region. Thus, it's a zero-sum game � unless the region can persuade the state to reduce the overall target number. By law, the housing allocation is supposed to occur every five years � but in the recession years of the early �90s, the Legislature did not fund the allocation process and postponed it for all regions. Therefore, the SCAG allocation effort is the first of its kind anywhere in the state in almost a decade, making it especially important. Housing policy is a high-profile issue now because a booming economy has not equaled a boom in housing construction. The state recently released an analysis showing that housing production in California during the 1990s was only half the total of previous decades. And jobs-housing balance issues have become a high-priority item in Sacramento. SCAG has put a lot of effort into trying to make the process work � doing a lot of technical outreach to local governments, revising its own process and methodology, and delegating decisions to sub-regions whenever possible. Just because the process has been extensive, however, doesn't mean that it has been peaceful. The agency is currently engaged in pitched battle with some of its member jurisdictions � especially those in the Inland Empire � over how the low/mod housing should be allocated. SCAG has already negotiated with the state for a reduction in overall low/mod housing need from approximately 675,000 units to 600,000 over the next five years, and the agency is supposed to be done with the allocations by June 30. But under pressure from its members, the agency has temporarily halted its final approval process, pushed a bill in the Legislature that would provide a six-month deadline extension, and begun lobbying for a further reduction in the region's low/mod housing obligation. All these actions have apparently come as the result of a near-revolution on the part of some Southern California localities who have been unsuccessful in getting SCAG to reduce their allocation. Of the 189 jurisdictions in the SCAG region, 47 appealed their RHNA numbers to the agency's Community, Economic, and Human Development Committee. Many of the jurisdictions, such as the cities of San Bernardino and Moreno Valley, asked for reductions of several thousand units. Joe Carreras, director of comprehensive planning at SCAG, said the state's target number was so high compared to recent construction levels that it called into question the credibility of the whole process, especially in the Inland Empire. "The private market hasn't rebounded as we'd hoped," he said. Of those appeals � virtually all of which called for a reduction in the jurisdiction's target � 11 were fully accepted by SCAG's Community, Economic, and Human Development Committee, 8 were partially accepted, 26 were rejected, and 2 were withdrawn. The SCAG committee made these recommendations on April 26, and SCAG's Regional Council � the organization's governing body � was scheduled to give final approval to these recommendations at its meeting on May 4. Shortly before that meeting, however, the SCAG staff changed the Regional Council's requested action from "approve" to "receive and file". Mark Pisano, the agency's executive director, and Colin Lennard, SCAG's counsel, asked Regional Council members to consider the staff report a "progress report" and send the whole matter back to the committee level, where more public hearings would be held. The Inland Empire jurisdictions, however, reacted with anger at SCAG's proposed process changes. Allison Burns, a lawyer representing Moreno Valley, accused SCAG of Brown Act violations. San Bernardino Mayor Judith Velles, a member of the Regional Council, demanded a halt to the process rather than further committee hearings. "I say, reject the whole thing and start from scratch." Instead of starting from scratch, the Regional Council voted simply to halt the process and lobby the state for further reductions in the SCAG regional target. It remains to be seen whether they'll succeed. Regional housing policy will always be controversial in California. Housing is the only area of planning policy in which local jurisdictions must answer to the region and the state, rather than simply doing what they want � and, understandably, the cities and counties chafe under this requirement After the SCAG debacle, it is likely that the state Department of Housing and Community Development will examine how to improve the process. Both SCAG and the state Department of Housing and Community Development, for example, seem to agree that the process takes too long, and planners often work with numbers and market condition data that are two years old. Even so, it's not likely that the allocation process will go away, which means than in the long run, local governments in California will have to learn how to live with a zero-sum game.

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