The Future of Housing

Housing brings new trends this year.

By Ron Nestor 

Life during COVID changed us in many ways, among them was an exodus to the suburbs and exurbs facilitated by Zoom. This has created unforeseen issues including unprecedented rent increases (15% in San Bernardino County) and home price increases in places like Boise and Austin, ranked now as the two most overvalued markets in the nation.  

Now as we return to “normal” are the COVID housing trends going to remain or are attitudes going to change back to pre-COVID? It’s time, once again, to take a closer look at the topic of where we build and the future of our cities.

California has a well-documented housing shortage, but this is a trend worldwide. To address California’s housing shortage, the state has implemented its Regional Housing Needs Assessment establishing ambitious goals for every jurisdiction in the state to be planned over an eight-year period. 

Unlike past allotments, this time the State means business with severe penalties if ignored.  Most cities have seen their requirements more than triple with nearly half of all the allotments for affordable units. The City of Irvine’s numbers doubled from 12,000 to almost 24,000; San Francisco went from 29,000 to 82,000 and Costa Mesa went from 2 to over 11,000! For the six-county Southern California region centered on Los Angeles County, the total allotment is 1.34 million new homes.

“It’s time, once again, to take a closer look at the topic of where we build and the future of our cities.”

These homes will create a need for schools, hospitals, retail, roads and jobs, as well as a demand for water, sewers, waste disposal, energy and more. A movement to push the allocation to the fringes of the urban region where land may be more plentiful was denied. Allocations are more heavily weighted to where jobs are located.  

The cry from many “built-out” established cities was how they can meet these numbers. The answer comes from a careful review of under-utilized sites of dead malls, low-intensity commercial and industrial properties, surplus government facilities and upzoning of properties.

Some people prefer their large plot of land with a spacious home if they can afford it, even if distant from employment. But others crave the institutions, events, transportation options and lifestyle of in-town living. Parents want to live near their children and children near their parents. Jobs are still located in the more urbanized centers. Searching for Walkscores can be an important determinant on where to live.

The City of Anaheim had the forethought to envision a vibrant downtown by implementing The Colony Plan, transforming under-utilized properties into a walkable environment that embraces historic assets, incorporated innovative land uses such as The Packing House as the amenity for the new developments by several entities in a unique “master plan” of an existing environment.  

Other infill opportunities include dated malls and failed golf courses. Lewis Group of Companies redeveloped the Empire Lakes Golf Course in Rancho Cucamonga into a 3000-home community called The Resort, located within a 15-minute walk from a Metrolink Station. Many other opportunities on small sites exist, like a group of 42 townhomes on a former Marie Callender’s restaurant site in Whittier.  

California used to have Redevelopment Agencies that were intended to combat blight. A portion of the property taxes generated by a district could be reinvested there for improvements, but this 60-year program ended in 2012 during a historic budget crisis.  

While some redevelopment projects have been viewed as wasteful, others provided powerful tools to affordable housing and infrastructure. Many view establishing a new redevelopment program essential to meet the ambitious RHNA housing goals and to prepare for the effects of climate change, wildfires and sea level rise. 

Local governments would have the ability to launch community revitalization projects through the creation of a new redevelopment program that the private sector alone could not.

While it is true that many people are leaving the state, in-state population growth continues and well-educated high wage earners are still attracted to the Golden State. One significant factor in the out-migration is the lack of housing. Every category of housing is in need. Now is the time to tackle this problem.

Ron Nestor, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior principal of WHA. He may be contacted at ronn@whainc.com.