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What's so hard about building enough homes in Orange County?

Oakcrest Terrace, a new affordable housing development in Yorba Linda.
Oakcrest Terrace, a new affordable housing development in Yorba Linda.
Jill Replogle

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Why is it so hard to build the homes that Orange County — and the entire state — needs to keep up with demand? 

It’s no secret that the largely suburban county is facing a severe housing shortage. Orange County needed to build around 82,000 homes between 2003 and 2014 to keep up with demand identified by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, a state-mandated effort to get cities and counties to plan for the future. But it only built 56 percent of that total identified need (Los Angeles County built just 41 percent). 

The housing authority also noted that very few jurisdictions statewide met their quotas for building low and very-low income housing.

Everyone sees and feels the effects of not having enough housing. It shows up in high rents and home prices and in the growing homeless population.

So why do cities struggle to keep up? I recently jumped on a bus with some local officials in Orange County to try and find out. 

The OC housing tour was put on by the Association of California Cities - Orange County in an effort to educate local officials about the need for high-density housing and how to get it built. 

After passing around a box of donuts, we took off out of the Main Place Mall parking lot in Santa Ana with the association’s CEO Heather Stratman as our guide. 

Soon, we were driving past the long row of homeless people’s tents that line the Santa Ana River behind Angel Stadium. 

“That is the face of homelessness,” Stratman said into a microphone at the front of the bus. "But there’s a huge sector of our population that is right on the cusp. People are doubling and tripling up in apartments just to make rents, and that puts impacts on our services, it puts impacts back on the communities, parking gets out of control, it’s sort of a spiral effect.” 

On the way up Highway 57 from Anaheim to Yorba Linda, Matt Buck, vice president for public affairs with the California Apartment Association, went through some common myths and facts about high-density housing.  

“A lot of times when we try to do housing, you get a lot of people who show up in the audience and they like to raise their hands and yell at the council members, right?” he said, eliciting knowing chuckles from city officials on the bus.  

“OK, myth or fact: Higher density development leads to higher crime. How many think that’s a fact?” he asked. No one raised their hand. “Myth?" A half dozen people raised their hands. Buck chided the audience's reluctance to answer quiz questions so early in the morning, then said that it was a myth.

Studies actually go back and forth on this question, but a wide variety of other factors influence the crime rate, making a direct correlation hard to quantify. Other points of debate Buck cited include the effect of high-density development on increased traffic, pressure on city services and the environment.

Various city council members on the tour later told me that all of these arguments have come up when they’ve weighed whether or not to approve new housing projects. The term NIMBY — short for "not in my backyard" — also came up a lot, uttered by frustrated city council members from across the county. 

Just off the highway that runs through Yorba Linda's rolling, green hills dotted with multi-million dollar homes, we came to our first stop on the tour: Oakcrest Terrace. It's a brand new apartment complex with white, wood-trimmed balconies and cheery, pastel-colored siding, built in a commercial area dominated by car dealerships and big box stores. 

All 69 units here are reserved for low-income residents, and the complex has a waitlist several years long. There's a modern playground and a basketball court, plus a community room where after-school programs and health screenings are held. 

It’s a short walk or car commute to retail stores where many of the residents work. 

Yorba Linda Planning Commissioner J. Minton Brown looked around admiringly. This development almost didn’t get built. A long history of competing ballot measures around high-density housing nearly made it impossible. In 2014, two city council members faced recall over the issue. 

It turns out, one of the biggest obstacles to building homes, especially affordable ones, in places like Yorba Linda is the public.  

“People defend mightily their property values,” Brown said. "And they’re afraid that if somebody comes in and does a high-density project, my property values are going to fall off.” 

A lot of studies have found this is not true. But elected officials have to respond to their constituents. They’re the ones who get them elected.  

In a recent report on the state’s housing crisis, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that “real improvement can come only with a major shift in how communities and their residents think about and value new housing.” The LAO, which is charged with providing policy guidance to the state legislature, called on elected officials and local leaders to lead “difficult conversations” with their communities about the need for growth.

Brown hopes attractive, well-run affordable housing developments like Oakcrest Terrace will help persuade residents that they’re good — and necessary — neighbors.  

"I just think the public perception will change with education,” he said. 

Eighteen miles to the south is our second stop, a posh condo and apartment complex built by the Irvine Company, one of OC's mega-developers. Along with stainless steel appliances and quartz countertops, the hefty price here at Portola Court (starting at around $1,900 for a one-bedroom) includes access to two resort-sized pools, a gym with state-of-the-art equipment and even a fully-equipped yoga studio. 

A sign on the gym door announces a wine tasting event at the clubhouse. It’s a far cry from the credit repair workshops and ESL classes offered at Oakcrest Terrace.  

I caught up with Scott Larson, executive director of HomeAid Orange County, a non-profit that builds and renovates homeless shelters. I figured he’d be rolling his eyes at all this luxury, but he wasn't.  

“The more supply the better,” Larson said. "If a community approves a high-density apartment complex, that helps because it’s providing more direct housing in that community.”

According to this trickle-down housing theory, building any new housing, even high-end units, relieves pressure on the housing market as a whole and should free up less expensive units. 

The theory is hotly debated; Some say the practice just drives poor people out.  

But cities do often make developers provide some low-income housing in exchange for the right to build higher-end, more profitable projects. In fact, under such a deal, the Irvine Company recently opened a 256-unit affordable apartment development right next door to the one we’re touring — and it has its own big pool and fitness center.  

Back on the bus, we headed to our final stop: Huntington Breakers, a newly-renovated apartment complex just a block from the sand in Huntington Beach.  

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem. Mike Posey said this type of high-density housing has to be part of the city’s future. If not, the city risks becoming a NORC — a naturally occurring retirement community. It’s a term demographers use to describe places with aging populations that are not interested in accommodating new arrivals.  

“Every mature city in Orange County needs its next generation of entrepreneurs, needs the next generation of workers to fill the jobs of those retiring,"  Posey said. "We need the next generation of community volunteers, we need the next generation of elected officials, we need all that.”

Huntington Beach has been the site of bitter debates over affordable and high-density housing in recent years. The city got sued in 2015 for failing to plan for affordable housing under the city’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation. 

The legal battle is ongoing, but a judge ruled last year that the city must reinstate provisions that allow for building 4,500 units, including 410 low-income units, along two of the city’s main thoroughfares.

Posey wants to repurpose some of the city’s commercial spaces — the ones that house big box stores being put out of business or forced to downsize by online shopping — to house people instead. It seems like a good idea. But he’ll have to convince the city’s voters and his fellow council members it is too.