Irvine Officials Say State Housing Mandates Penalize Economic Success

February 28, 2021 Updated: March 1, 2021

Officials in Irvine, California, say the state has imposed burdensome housing quotas on the city because it has successfully created transportation hubs around major job centers as desired.

State mandates will require Irvine to build nearly 24,000 housing units by 2029. City planners liken the requirement to a punishment for economic success, and indicate they are being assessed on transportation hubs that are unlikely to be built for decades.

“To build over 23,000 units when a third of our city is dedicated permanent open space puts a weight that is probably close to, if not absolutely, unbearable on the master plan of the city,” Councilman Mike Carroll said.

Carroll told the city council earlier this month that the state had imposed unrealistic goals on Irvine after the city received its latest Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) quotas from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). He said that SCAG and the California government were forcing wealthier cities such as Irvine to build more affordable housing for low-income residents, thus usurping the authority of local governments to make their own land-use decisions.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that we have two what’s called ‘job centers,’ or high-quality transit areas, and there’s other acronyms that are thrown around,” said Carroll.

Irvine received the fifth-largest allocation of housing units in the SCAG region, which encompasses 191 cities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, and Ventura counties. Only the city of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles and Riverside counties have more.

A California State Auditor report released in November 2020 suggested the state “must overhaul its approach to affordable housing development” to help millions of Californians with burdensome costs. The report called for a “far more effective statewide plan” and greater oversight over “the billions of dollars available for construction.”

“At the local level, state law and state oversight are not strong enough to ensure that cities and counties … are doing their part to facilitate the construction of affordable housing,” the report stated.

Changing Methods

Carroll—who is Irvine’s designated regional council member on the SCAG board—said the large allotment was the result of “very technical methodology” used to calculate and assign housing quotas throughout the Southern California region. He said the methodology had recently changed, increasing Irvine’s requirements.

Anaheim City Councilman Trevor O’Neil, another SCAG board member, also said the methodology had been revised. He previously suggested that a last-minute adjustment shifted tens of thousands of housing units from Riverside to cities in Orange County.

O’Neil said the housing criteria was determined initially based 25 percent on the city’s projected growth, “which we call the local control component,” 25 percent on accessibility to jobs, and 25 percent on proximity to high-quality transit areas. But he said when the formula changed, the local control component was eliminated.

“So it does penalize cities that have developed high-quality transit areas and have developed a strong economy. Cities like Irvine are definitely impacted, because they’re very rich in jobs and in transit,” O’Neil told The Epoch Times.

The state’s RHNA mandates operate on eight-year cycles. The sixth cycle, which is set to begin in October and last through 2029, requires Irvine to build 23,554 new housing units.

The required units are broken down into four categories, based on income level, to meet the state’s affordable housing goals. Irvine’s mandate includes 6,379 very-low-income units, 4,225 low-income units, 4,229 moderate-income units, and 8,661 above-moderate-income units.

Plans for the City

City Planner Marika Poynter told the Irvine City Council earlier this month that the city’s final RHNA allocations are expected to increase when they’re adopted by the SCAG Regional Council in March.

“We do expect a slight increase in the anticipated total in each of the categories due to some successful RHNA appeals, in the amount of about 3,000 units that will be redistributed throughout the region,” she said.

During the last eight-year cycle, Irvine more than doubled its required allotment, Poynter noted. The city’s requirement was 12,149 units—“and we have built 29,025,” she said.

However, the city missed its targets on lower-income requirements, she said, noting that the city built only 1,127 of the 2,817 required very-low-income units and only 37 of the 2,034 units required in the low-income category.

But in the moderate-income category, the city built nearly 13,000 units—far exceeding the RHNA allocation of 2,239 units—and in the above moderate category, the city built nearly 15,000 units, though only 5,059 units were required.

Poynter said Irvine’s recent economic success contributed to not only its own allotment but to its neighbors’ requirements as well.

“The City of Irvine is probably the only place in the SCAG region that actually has two major job centers,” Poynter said, but Newport Beach and other nearby jurisdictions were “also penalized by those job centers.”

“Anybody within a 30-minute drive of [the] Irvine Spectrum and the IBC [Irvine Business Complex] was hit pretty hard, which is why Orange County has such a burden as well,” she said. The RHNA allocation for the entire SCAG region is just over 1.34 million units.

Charles Kovac, a city staffer in the Community Development Department, said that identifying potential housing sites in Irvine will be challenging because, “unlike prior cycles, there [are] less vacant lands available, and recent state legislation has made it more difficult to designate land to meet RHNA [requirements].”

“The housing element update will create the opportunity for housing, but clearly it is the developers that will ultimately build the housing,” Kovac said.

He added that further “policies and legislative updates” would have to be approved by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to ensure compliance with state law.

Transportation Hubs and OCTA

According to Poynter, population centers around hypothetical transportation hubs and stops contributed significantly to higher housing quotas for Irvine.

The city planner said that the high-quality transit areas for Irvine “were based on two hypothetical bus rapid transits that are running down State Route 55 and Interstate 5. And those are Vision Plan transit options, with a potential of possibly being constructed by 2045.”

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) told the city that both projects would require major infrastructure improvements by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), Poynter said.

“OCTA informed us that they were unaware of the fact that SCAG was going to use these assumptions as commitments, and it was something that was done without their knowledge or their analysis and impact on local jurisdictions,” she said. “And we tried to get them to go on record. Unfortunately, they were unable to do that.”

Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for OCTA, told The Epoch Times his organization considers Irvine “a great partner,” adding that the two entities had worked closely together on multiple projects over the years, including rail stations, bridges, and safety issues. However, OCTA had nothing to do with the housing allocation.

“We play no role in determining housing goals and in fact, OCTA has no say in how cities plan their housing or other development,” Zlotnik said in an email.

“We don’t determine where jobs go and we don’t determine where housing goes, we respond to planned development and growth to ensure transportation is in place to support it. Our role is to plan short- and long-term transportation projects that will help keep up with the growth expected to come as more people live in, work in, and visit Orange County.”

Irvine Councilman Anthony Kuo questioned why OCTA would not go on the record about the SCAG assumptions. He accused OCTA of failing to clear up the confusion over the hypothetical nature of high-quality transit hubs because it doesn’t want to lose funding for those projects.

The problem seems to stem from “an unwillingness of the OCTA to do what’s right and say these are not priority projects,” said Kuo. Instead, he suggested OCTA is implying, “‘We’re going to keep our mouth shut because we want your money.’”

Zlotnik said: “The information used by SCAG to determine the housing allocation takes into account OCTA’s planned transportation projects, all of which the cities have been involved in developing, including those that are in the city’s own circulation plan. … Irvine has been a long-time supporter of transit projects because they have clearly recognized the need to give people transportation choices. It’s disappointing to see housing issues create obstacles to enhancing our local and regional transit system.”

Kuo also wanted to know why housing on the University of California–Irvine (UC–Irvine) campus does not count toward the RHNA housing quotas. “So, UC–Irvine can build hundreds or thousands of dorms, and it wouldn’t count?” he said.

Poynter confirmed. “If it’s on their campus, it does not count towards our RHNA,” she said, adding that UC–Irvine doesn’t have its own requirement either.

Irvine—along with Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Mission Viejo, Yorba Linda, and Garden Grove—last month lost an RHNA appeal that sought to reverse the revised methodologies and shift some of the housing requirements to Santa Ana.