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The Gatekeepers: How SoCal Cities Could Thwart California’s New Affordable Housing Mandate

California’s efforts to tackle its housing crisis may be headed for trouble at the local level.




Illustration: Define Urban.

Police in riot gear clearing hundreds of homeless campers. Women and children without housing “reclaiming” vacant residences while trying to evade state troopers. Looming evictions threatening millions of renters.

California’s housing crisis has reached an epic scale, with median home prices now at $800,000, more than half of tenants paying at least 30% of their income to cover the rent and the state accounting for nearly half of the nation’s homeless population.

At least on paper, California has never been more poised to attack the problem. A new fair housing law — the furthest reaching of its kind in the country — requires wealthy neighborhoods and exclusive towns to rip down the gates, literal or figurative, that reserve high-quality schools and clean air only for those who can afford multimillion-dollar homes. California jurisdictions can’t relegate newly planned apartments to the outskirts of town, or to lower-income neighborhoods, and every city’s housing plan must assess patterns of segregation and take steps to break them.

But a Capital & Main investigation has found evidence that California state government’s efforts to tackle its housing debacle may be headed for trouble at the local level. We examined the housing policies of several very different Southern California cities and uncovered the following:

  • L.A. city officials have touted developer incentive programs that allow taller and denser buildings if they include low-cost apartments as major affordable housing successes. But they have greatly exaggerated the number of units planned and downplayed the consequences that harm the program’s potential beneficiaries. At the city’s current pace, it will hit its 2029 affordable housing goals in 54 years.
  • The city doesn’t even appear to have an accurate count of the affordable housing its own program has produced, despite millions of dollars it has paid an outside contractor to track its affordable housing portfolio.
  • Newport Beach, one of the state’s wealthiest and least diverse cities, must for the first time ever prove to the state it will make way for substantial affordable housing. So far, however, it plans to place most of the new dwellings in the least desirable parts of town, far from the city’s established neighborhoods.
  • Even in Culver City, where elected officials say they want to fully comply with the new housing laws, hired consultants — who guide the process statewide — advised the city that it’s too risky to honestly assess how much housing it can accommodate, because if the city comes up short, it would have to touch a third rail of local politics and rezone for denser housing.

These are not the only hurdles facing the state’s plan for 1.5 million new homes — half of which must be affordable to low and moderate income residents — to be built in Southern California alone by 2029.

There is little money earmarked to pay for the state’s ambitious housing goals. And while California is depending on the free market to meet the state’s dire housing needs, housing analysts of all stripes agree the private sector can’t profitably build for California’s lowest wage workers who need housing the most.

But the biggest obstacle may be the need for a 180-degree mindshift, especially in affluent areas where opposition to development is practically a municipal religion, and any attempt at rezoning for new development is a potential political career killer. Now city officials are being told they must encourage development, welcome new residents — and work to dismantle the de facto racial and economic segregation that has flourished since the Supreme Court outlawed outright housing discrimination in 1917.

Capital & Main’s series captures a state in flux where a high stakes battle over a fundamental human need pits progressive policies against entrenched local politics.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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