San Luis Obispo County is oak-studded hills, lush wineries and dramatic coastlines. But when the state ordered the region to zone for more than 18,000 homes in the next few years, it got anything but a bucolic response.
The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, representing six cities and the county, opposed the state figure as being 4,000 houses too many. Its members split recently on whether to wage a court fight, leaving the issue up in the air.
For the first time in a decade, the state is issuing quotas to deal with California’s housing crisis, but some cities and counties are balking at what they see as forced urbanization.
“They’re always afraid of becoming another Los Angeles,” said Ronald L. DeCarli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo government council.
The council and some two dozen counties have until the end of next year to develop and adopt zoning plans to meet state projections of how much housing they will need in the next five years. Deadlines for other regions have been staggered, with the current cycle beginning in 1999 with San Diego County.
Dense inner cities and rural towns alike have challenged the figures in court, in some cases arguing their growth rates won’t be as great as the state estimates. Local officials fear the consequences of rapid growth — from clogged freeways to water shortages — and worry they won’t be able to afford the roads, sewer lines and other services that waves of new residents will require.
One recent lawsuit involves the Southern California Association of Governments, which represents a six-county area with 17 million residents.
Even more governments have haggled with the state, negotiating to reduce the number of homes they must account for in zoning plans.
“This has been something that communities haven’t had to struggle with for almost a decade, so they’ve kind of gotten out of the habit,” said Cathy Creswell, deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. “But the growth that has been projected is also higher than people have experienced in quite a long time.”
Nobody argues that California is in a housing crisis. The nation’s most populous state is growing by 600,000 people a year and its population is expected to reach 52 million by 2030.
An estimated 220,000 new housing units must be created each year to meet current growth, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
The best projections from government and industry sources have construction falling short by more than 50,000 units — in effect, the creation of a mid-sized town every year.
With too many people and too few places to live, home prices and rental rates have soared in recent years, becoming a constant topic of conversation. The statewide median home price — the point at which half the homes sell for more and half for less — climbed to $323,310 in September, up more than 17 percent from a year earlier, according to the California Association of Realtors.
The figure was much higher in some areas: $450,520 in Orange County and $529,250 in Santa Cruz County.
Nine of the 10 least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States last year were in California, with the San Luis Obispo-Atascadero-Paso Robles area rated fourth, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
The median home price there in September was $341,660, according to the real estate group.
The lack of affordable housing has created both overcrowding and traffic congestion. State officials say garages are being converted into bedrooms, multiple families are packing into single households and people are moving farther from work, in some cases 100 miles or more, just to find housing they can afford.
But state efforts to mandate planning for more homes has run up against public fear that building them will lead to urban sprawl, even worse traffic congestion, higher smog levels and crowded schools — in short, that runaway growth will destroy the charm of their local communities.
The inexorable population growth has created a public backlash. Two years ago, there were 60 land-use initiatives on local ballots, most involving preserving land or slowing growth, said Dan Carrig of the League of California Cities, a nonprofit lobbying group for 477 cities.
At least 25 growth issues are on Tuesday’s ballots in cities throughout the state.
“You just have to look at the initiatives they are putting on the ballots ... to tell their own city councils when and where they’ve had enough,” Carrig said.
Many local governments differ with state officials over how many housing units they’ll need through 2007.
State law requires the so-called housing needs assessments to be made every five years, although budget cuts halted planning during the recession of the early 1990s.
Using projected regional growth rates based on state Department of Finance population projections and other figures, the Department of Housing and Community Development issues a housing mandate to regional councils, who in turn divvy up the requirements to the counties, cities and towns that are their members.
Those members then have a year to create zoning to allow the houses — although the law doesn’t require that a single home actually be constructed.
So far, only about half of the cities and counties in the state currently have zoning plans that comply with state law. The state housing department believes it will achieve 70 percent compliance in the next few years.
The state has no penalties for violating its requirements, but communities that fail to meet them aren’t eligible for potentially tens of millions of dollars in state and federal housing funds.
If they adhere to the state numbers, many local government officials said they won’t be able to pay for the services required by the thousands of new residents who will follow new home construction.
Local governments already twisting in the economic wind fear water supply problems and the cost of providing roads, sewer lines and schools to meet those obligations. Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped property taxes, means single-family homes and other types of housing are money-losers, costing more in services than they provide in taxes, Carrig said.
Cities and counties also are concerned they could overbuild if growth is slower than the state anticipates.
“I think we know what we’re doing here. I think we have a good plan... I don’t think the state needs to tell us how to do this,” said Frank Mecham, mayor of Paso Robles, a town of 26,000 in San Luis Obispo County.
Mike Rawson, director of the California Affordable Housing Law Project in Oakland, said he is involved in at least seven lawsuits involving elements of the state housing requirements. His group supports the state mandates as a way of providing critically needed housing.
To Rawson, the critics have it wrong: making communities denser won’t create urban problems. Sprawl will.
In his view, the age of the tract home is over. It leads only to clogged freeways and paved-over farmland.
Rawson sees California cities being transformed into vibrant Paris-like communities of apartments and condominiums flourishing in the midst of restaurants, museums, parks and public transit.
“Some communities have the vision of the ideal single-family neighborhood with tree-lined streets and everybody having a back yard and a front yard and two-car garage, and that’s not possible for half the families in California,” Rawson said.
“There’s gonna be more urbanization,” he said. “Barring building a wall around the state and saying no one else can come in, that’s the only solution.”