Over the past few weeks, cities across Los Angeles County have been releasing final versions of their housing element updates. As AHLA members likely know, state law requires cities to create strategic plans for meeting a housing growth goal (the “RHNA target”) by 2029. Unfortunately, most cities in our region are trying to “game” the system, by creating housing elements that don’t actually encourage more housing growth by removing barriers to housing production. 

Worse, there’s growing evidence that the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the agency that approves or denies cities’ housing elements, is buckling under pressure from NIMBY city governments and approving substandard housing elements that don’t follow state housing law. Last month, HCD approved San Diego’s deficient housing element, which didn’t provide evidence that sites designated for lower-income housing are actually likely to be redeveloped (a requirement under AB 1397) or include a tangible program to affirmatively further fair housing (a requirement under AB 686). HCD also approved housing elements for smaller cities in San Diego County, like Imperial Beach, that contained similar violations of state law.

If this pattern continues, and the housing element update process turns into a paper exercise that changes little on the ground, then California will have missed a massive opportunity to start fixing its housing affordability crisis. 

This is because the housing element requires cities to plan for much more housing than has been built in recent years. The combined RHNA target for cities across Los Angeles County is over 800,000 more homes during the next 8 years. For comparison, these cities added only 136,000 more homes during the past 8 years (or 4% total growth in the housing stock during that time). AHLA has argued that the 800,000-home RHNA target is an underestimate of the county’s true housing need, and that we need almost 1.7 million new homes to fully meet current and future demand.

Nevertheless, if the cities of L.A. County did create the conditions for 800,000 more homes by 2029, this would be a major step towards relieving housing scarcity and bringing down housing costs. This would also help us build communities that are more environmentally sustainable, equitable, open to newcomers, and economically prosperous. This is why it’s so important that cities create high-quality housing elements that legalize denser housing, especially near jobs, transit, and in well-resourced neighborhoods. 

The City of Los Angeles has brought forward a strong housing element that includes significant rezoning in prosperous, transit-accessible areas, which is a very positive step given that it’s home to 40% of the County’s population. But most cities in the region, particularly high-income cities like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena, have shown themselves unwilling to create a high-quality, legally compliant housing element.

If these cities are allowed to get away with adopting housing elements that don’t fundamentally reform housing policy, then Los Angeles County will probably remain on its current trajectory of producing little new housing, and will fall far short of its RHNA goals. That’s a recipe for even higher rents, less homeownership, displacement of lower-income communities of color, and a growing exodus of Angelenos to less expensive states.

To better understand the stakes here, we did some rough calculations to forecast what future housing growth might look like in L.A. County without high-quality housing elements.

As a starting point, we took the County’s housing growth rate for the past 4 years, and applied it forward to the next 8 years. L.A. County added 86,400 more homes between 2016 and 2020, which is equivalent to about 172,000 more homes added between 2021 and 2029. That would only increase the County’s housing stock by 5% (there are about 3.6 million homes in L.A. County today), and would only achieve 21% of the County’s combined RHNA goals.

However, thanks to several state housing bills that have been passed since 2017, it’s reasonable to forecast a faster pace of future housing production:

  • 2019 ADU reforms – this three-bill package made it easier and faster to get a permit for an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), and required cities to automatically permit certain categories of ADUs. Starting in 2020, the pace of ADU production increased dramatically, particularly in cities that were very hostile to ADU development. 
  • Senate Bill 35 – this 2017 law streamlines apartment construction, requiring cities to grant a permit within 60-90 days for projects that contain below-market-rate units and pay construction workers union-level wages, and exempting these projects from environmental review. The law applies to cities that fall behind on their RHNA goals; cities that fail to implement a high-quality housing element will almost certainly find themselves in this situation.

But even in an optimistic scenario where these bills cause future housing production to be 50% higher than the 2016-20 pace of homebuilding, L.A. County would only add 259,000 more homes by 2029. This would be a 7% increase in the County’s housing stock, and would only achieve 32% of the County’s combined RHNA goals.

Housing Growth Forecast Scenarios for L.A. County, 2021-29

The reality is that we need future housing production to be 370% higher than the 2016-20 pace of homebuilding in order to achieve the County’s combined RHNA goals (put differently, housing growth needs to be almost 5 times higher than it is today). 

This would represent a 23% increase in the County’s housing stock, enough abundance to make a major dent in housing costs. We need transformative housing elements throughout the County in order to encourage this pace of housing production going forward. But to get this outcome, HCD and Governor Newsom need to tell NIMBY cities to stop playing games and develop good, legally compliant housing elements.