Soon after South Pasadena released a proposed new housing plan, Dr. Josh Albrektson jumped on his scooter and putted around town, checking out where his city planned to put 2,067 new housing units.
He was disappointed by what he saw.
In a Twitter feed published last year, the neural radiologist with a passion for urban planning documented 27 proposed home sites he thought had little chance of being redeveloped by the end of the decade.
They included City Hall, even though the city had no firm plans to relocate.
They included skinny, sloping tracts where homebuilding would be a challenge, parcels abutting the Gold Line railroad tracks and one site he says is questionable because it’s bordered by high-voltage power lines.
“There’s no chance these homes will be built in this manner as South Pasadena is claiming,” Albrektson said.
In a revised plan released April 21, City Hall and many of the sites Albrektson objected to were removed.
Still, South Pasadena remains an example of how some Southern California cities are failing to adequately plan for future housing needs, pro-housing advocates say.
In some cities, they say, the revisions amount to a “paper exercise” that’s unlikely to produce the needed housing the state demands they plan for.
“We’re in the midst of a housing shortage, (with) estimates that we need over 3 million more homes in the state,” said Rafa Sonnenfeld, director of legal advocacy at YIMBY Law, or Yes In My Backyard. “Cities unwilling to plan for those homes are part of the problem.”
For their part, local government planners say they’re doing their best to grapple with a host of new state laws, heightened requirements, plus a huge increase in the number of homes they’re required to plan for this decade.
The state determined the six-county region covered by the Southern California Association of Governments, or SCAG, needs 1.34 million new homes by the end of the decade, an average of nearly 168,000 homes per year, adding enough housing for a population roughly the size of Chicago.
That’s three times the region’s 412,137-home goal for the last planning period, which ran from 2013 through 2021. Even that lower target was a struggle for the region, with just five jurisdictions — Santa Ana, Newport Beach, La Habra, West Hollywood and unincorporated San Bernardino County — reaching their homebuilding goals at all income levels as of 2020.
Now, new laws require cities to fully document why each site has a reasonable chance of getting developed by October 2029, the end of the current planning cycle. New measures also require municipalities to include plans for low-income housing in “high resource” affluent neighborhoods and to take steps to undo historic patterns of segregation.
“It’s a lot more technical, and a lot more staff-heavy,” Long Beach Community Development Director Alison Spindler-Ruiz said of this year’s planning process.
Other city planners say the state Housing and Community Development Department has been inconsistent in applying the new standards, with results sometimes varying from reviewer to reviewer at the state.
“I think it’s been overly burdensome,” said Brandy Forbes, Redondo Beach’s community development director. “I mean, they provided what the expectations are in the guidelines for preparing the housing element. … And then, the request is no, you need to give us more information.”
State law requires cities and counties to revise the “housing element” of their general plans at least once every eight years to ensure all communities big and small, rich and poor provide their fair share of housing at all income levels to meet current and future needs.
Southern California’s 191 cities and six counties were supposed to have certified new “housing elements” adopted by Feb. 11.
Just six jurisdictions met that deadline and just seven others had housing elements approved after the deadline. A new law requires jurisdictions that missed the Feb. 11 deadline to rezone land needed to meet their housing targets by October rather than the usual three-year timeline. But since many cities said they can’t complete the time-consuming process by next fall, efforts are underway in Sacramento to give Southern California governments more time to rezone.
Nevertheless, the remaining 184 jurisdictions technically are already out of compliance, resulting in lawsuits filed last month against seven Southern California cities.
In mid-April, Californians for Homeownership, a Realtor-affiliated pro-housing group, filed lawsuits against six Southern California cities for failing to get their plans approved on time. Another housing group, the Santa Monica Housing Council, filed a separate lawsuit against the city on April 4.
“The city’s adopted housing element … overstates the city’s realistic capacity for new housing,” the Santa Monica lawsuit said.
New housing elements must include an inventory of sites showing where future housing will go.
A 2021 analysis of 10 draft housing elements by Mapcraft Labs concluded that about 70% of proposed housing sites were unlikely to provide the projected number of units by the end of the decade. Mapcraft determined those cities’ plans would fall short by 32,900 to 66,800 units, or 20-40% of the projected total.
“Housing inventories typically overstate their realistic capacity in their plans,” said David Barboza, policy director for Abundant Housing LA, which commissioned Mapcraft’s analyses. “This has the effect of making it appear falsely that less reform actions are needed.”
Land-use expert Chris Elmendorf, a professor at the UC Davis law school, says another major concern is cities are assuming every parcel included in their housing elements will be developed to full capacity by the end of the decade. Studies of past housing elements found that less than 10% of selected sites got developed, he said.
“The biggest concern, by far, is that cities have traditionally assumed that every site that they can persuade HCD as being good enough to include a housing element is a site that will be developed during the planning period,” Elmendorf said. “And that’s just false.”
If cities are overestimating their ability to meet housing targets, “a huge amount of that housing is not going to materialize,” said Leonora Camner, executive director of Abundant Housing LA.
Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, an Orange County affordable housing advocate, complained that few jurisdictions are complying with new state laws that toughened the requirements for housing elements.
A 2017 state law, for example, requires a more detailed analysis showing that proposed housing sites have a realistic chance of getting developed during the planning period, especially for sites with existing buildings or homes on them.
Another law requires cities to demonstrate how they intend to “affirmatively further fair housing.”
“The problem with most housing elements is … they don’t have all the information required, they don’t have an appropriate analysis,” Covarrubias said. As for the fair housing requirements, he added, cities are “not going beyond (showing current conditions) and saying, there’s this need, and here are some potential solutions.”
Over the past year, housing advocates and reviewers at the state housing department expressed concern about a Redondo Beach proposal to locate 685 low-income homes in a 100-plus acre portion of the city’s North Tech District.
The half-mile square area straddling the 405 freeway is home to top employers, including Northrup Grumman, a delivery warehouse Amazon opened 2½ years ago, an Uber Greenlight office and several hotels.
The city’s draft housing element said existing buildings could be demolished or remodeled to accommodate the new housing, or the homes could replace existing parking lots.
But the state found that Redondo Beach’s plan lacked sufficient proof those uses would cease to exist by the end of 2029.
In response, the city chopped the North Tech site down to a mere 15.4 acres and came up with a new plan for 354 housing units on a reconfigured site, said Forbes, Redondo Beach’s community development director.
“It’s definitely realistic,” Forbes said of the revised North Tech plan. “The owners of that particular site had provided examples of where they’ve done this previously.”
In Manhattan Beach, a plan to convert portions of the tony Manhattan Country Club into 149 low-income homes drew criticism from Californians for Homeownership, which included the city in its six lawsuits.
A new owner, which acquired the country club for $73 million in 2017, has a lease for the city-owned, 7.5-acre parcel through 2043, according to news reports.
Asked why the country club’s lease won’t block someone from building future homes there, Manhattan Beach Planning Manager Talyn Mirzakhanian said specific site selection does not occur until the city decides which parcels to rezone.
“We have selected the sites in compliance with all of HCD’s requirements,” she said.
The Californians for Homeownership lawsuit disputes that claim.
“The city has not (found) any evidence that the existing uses on each of these sites will be discontinued during the planning period,” the lawsuit said.
A tweet critique
Under the Twitter handle, @JalbyMD, Albrektson posted a series of photos showing sites from South Pasadena’s 2021 draft plans, along with a running commentary.
He mentions a potential pocket park and a community garden, each of which has been designated as a future housing site.
“This 15-foot-wide plot of land on a steep slope is a future home according to them,” he wrote at one point. An office complex on the list, he wrote, “is leasing. It looks great. In order to be included, a place is supposed to be run down with leases that are ending.”
Albrektson complained more recently that the city’s revised housing element includes proposed home sites near the city’s hilly southwest boundary that are “examples of fake sites.” He maintains the city’s plan mentions sites that will be preserved as open space, then mentions the same sites as possible future homes.
Albrektson also questioned a city plan to put 133 new homes on the grounds of a Pavilions supermarket that’s currently being remodeled, with surface parking moving to an underground garage.
“South Pasadena is trying to create a housing element that won’t produce any new housing,” Albrektson said in an email. “South Pasadena doesn’t want to change and will do whatever it can to be sure it doesn’t have to.”
Not true, said South Pasadena Community Development Director Angelica Frausto-Lupo.
“The city supports affordable housing and is interested in ensuring there are housing opportunities for all persons,” she said. But, she added, it’s a challenge for South Pasadena to find enough places to put housing.
“Our biggest issue is the (housing allocation) numbers,” she said. “We are a built-out city, and our numbers went from 63 (homes) in the last cycle to 2,067.”
State officials noted Southern California cities got a late start working on their housing plans, in part due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But city planners said the process was much more exhaustive than during previous planning periods.
Spindler-Ruiz, the Long Beach planner who recently succeeded in winning state approval of her city’s housing element, said Long Beach started by evaluating 86,000 parcels, creating an index to rate the development potential of each one. City planners also created “an improvement ratio” to measure each parcel’s likelihood of being redeveloped.
“We went through a whole series of testing and data analysis,” Spindler-Ruiz said. “It’s been a tough, but we think, a fair process.”
Yorba Linda Planning Manager Nate Farnsworth complained at a recent Zoom meeting on Orange County housing elements that state housing officials have provided inconsistent guidance, with suggested changes varying from one reviewer to another.
“I think they’re still figuring out what it is that they want,” said Farnsworth, whose housing element recently won state certification. “You’ll ask for clarification on things. And they’ll say, we don’t know what we want, but we’ll know it when we see it.”
SCNG staff writer Nikie Johnson contributed to this report.
Approved housing elements
Thirteen Southern California cities and counties had approved housing elements as of Wednesday, May 4, state officials said. Just six met the Feb. 11 deadline:
- Ventura County, approved Dec. 22*
- Wildomar, approved Jan. 10*
- Duarte, approved Feb. 9*
- Victorville, approved Feb. 9*
- San Gabriel, approved Feb. 10*
- Westlake Village, approved Feb. 10*
- Imperial County, approved March 16
- Long Beach, approved April 8
- Yorba Linda, approved April 8
- El Centro, approved April 11
- Indio, approved April 20
- Jurupa Valley, approved April 21
- Calabasas, approved April 25
*Met the Feb. 11 deadline