The fight over fair-share allocations of needed housing within the Southern California Association of Governments region is on. At least two cities have filed lawsuits and numerous others are reportedly considering their legal and political options.

The cities of Irvine and Palmdale were apparently the first to find the courthouse, as both have filed lawsuits demanding that SCAG more equitably allocate units across the region. "The entire process was not appropriate," summed up Palmdale Assistant City Attorney Judy Skousen.

Early this year, SCAG adopted an "integrated forecast" and methodology for the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process. After considering requests for revisions and various appeals, SCAG in July adopted the RNHA numbers for every city and county in the six-county region. The RHNA apportions 700,000 units of very low-income, low-income, moderate-income and above moderate-income housing units for a planning period that began January 1, 2006, and concludes June 30, 2014. Cities and counties are supposed to use the RHNA numbers to update their general plan housing elements, which must explain how and where the jurisdiction will accommodate the units needed by people of varying incomes. Housing element updates for the SCAG region are due at the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) by June 2008.

Planners at SCAG began by working off a growth forecast prepared for the 2004 regional transportation plan, explained Joann Africa, a SCAG attorney. Planners accepted input from cities that helped refine the growth forecast and then began applying the adopted methodology. Among other things, the methodology considers the availability of land suitable for urban development, underutilized parcels, and opportunities for infill and higher densities. The methodology also allocates low- and very low-income units across the region in attempt to promote socio-economic equity, according to a report SCAG prepared for the Legislature.

The last round of housing allocations for the 1998 through 2005 planning period dissolved into extensive fighting and litigation among SCAG, its members and HCD over the total number of units needed and their distribution. During that round of planning, SCAG allocated large numbers of housing units to the Inland Empire, where cities and counties revolted. SCAG cut some of the allocations, but HCD refused to go along with the reductions. The battles were not resolved until near the end of the planning period (see CP&DR Insight, April 2003 and June 2000; CP&DR, February 2001).

Whether the latest battles will drag on for years is unknown, but possible. One of the combatants this time is the City of Irvine, a wealthy and politically powerful entity that is accustomed to getting what it wants — such as the conversion of the former El Toro Marine Corps base not into a civilian airport but instead into a park. Under SCAG's allocations, Irvine is supposed to plan for 35,660 new housing units, about 60% of which must be in the affordable categories. The RHNA figure is equal to more than half of the city's current housing inventory of about 64,500 units. The only city in the region to receive a larger allocation is Los Angeles at 112,000 units.

"We don't understand SCAG's methodology, and we cannot question their methodology," city spokesman Louis Gonzalez said.

Irvine Housing Manager Mark Asturias said the city has inclusionary zoning policies that permit developers to meet their obligations in a variety of ways. Plus, a core area along Jamboree Road is zoned for high-density housing. But if the SCAG allocation sticks, Asturias said, "we have to revisit everything."

And that may be just what SCAG wants. It appears two factors drove the SCAG numbers: jobs and land. Irvine is an employment center with about 188,000 jobs, or approximately three jobs for every housing unit. That's more than double what is typically considered a jobs-housing balance. In addition, Irvine has jurisdiction over the majority of El Toro, a 4,000-acre chunk of land, and Irvine annexed about 3,000 additional acres in recent years.

Asturias said nearly all of the land in the "northern sphere" annexation is covered by a natural communities conservation plan and cannot be developed. Of the El Toro site, the Navy is hanging on to more than 1,000 acres for environmental mitigation, and another 1,600 acres are planned for the Orange County Great Park. Only 1,100 acres are designated for housing development, and that land is already entitled for 3,300 units of low-density housing, Asturias said.

"That wasn't acknowledged by SCAG when they put their numbers together," Asturias said.

Undoubtedly, regional planners would like to see a lot more density than three units per acre on land that is so close to tens of thousands of jobs. Still, the Orange County Business Council, which ranks housing development as its top priority, is ready to support Irvine in court. The council's president, Lucy Dunn, a former HCD director, called SCAG's allocations "insane." Other cities in south Orange County were given minimal fair-share housing numbers, she pointed out. For example, Laguna Hills' total allocation is 8 units. Lake Forest's figure is 29. Mission Viejo's is 147.

"Fundamentally, on its face, it's not fair," Dunn said. "SCAG makes a mockery of the process."

The high desert city of Palmdale could not be more different from Irvine. Palmdale serves primarily as a bedroom for workers "down the hill" in the Santa Clarita Valley and Los Angeles. Adding SCAG's prescribed 17,910 units (about 58% which are supposed to be affordable) would only exacerbate already terrible freeway congestion, said Skousen, the assistant city attorney.

"They did not take into consideration all of the items listed in the statute," Skousen said. "For example, in the City of Palmdale, they did not take a realistic look at the number of jobs." Nor, she said, did SCAG consider water availability, which is a very real issue in Palmdale.

Palmdale would like its allocation cut to about 10,000 units. In an earlier appeal that SCAG denied, Irvine was willing to accept 8,800 units. However, both cities readily admit that if SCAG accepts those lower numbers, other jurisdictions must receive the units.

The City of El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley is not prepared to sue yet. Instead, Planning Manager Minh Thai said, the city will go through the process of seeing how it can accommodate its allocation of 2,208 units, 56% of which are to be affordable. However, even during the housing boom earlier this decade, builders produced only about 140 units a year in El Monte, Thai noted.

"We feel that the numbers do not match our ability to provide the units in terms of what the market can drive and what our infrastructure can accommodate," Thai said.

The city has nearly completed a specific plan that envisions about 1,850 housing units in a 65-acre, transit-oriented development adjacent to the downtown area, a Metrolink station and the terminus of the El Monte Busway. However, nearly all of those units would be market-rate, Thai said. The city does have extensive industrial land, and there is landowner interest in converting some into residential uses, Thai said. But the city is trying to preserve its industrial areas so that it has a balance of land uses.

Officials at HCD are expected to approve SCAG's allocation plan this month.

Mark Asturias, City of Irvine, (949) 724-7448.
Minh Thai, City of El Monte, (626) 580-2090.
Judy Skousen, City of Palmdale, (661) 267-5108.
Lucy Dunn, Orange County Business Council, (949) 476-2242.
SCAG RHNA website: