The regional housing wars have begun again in Southern California. And how they come out will go a long way toward determining how much influence the state’s four major “blueprint” regional planning efforts will have over local development patterns – especially infill housing – during the next few years.

In July, the Regional Council of the Southern California Association of Governments, SCAG’s governing body, spent several hours debating the agency’s proposed pilot Regional Housing Needs Assessment program. The guts of SCAG’s proposal would involve a controversial merger of regional housing and transportation plans and a new set of regional incentives encouraging the locals to follow SCAG’s “2% Strategy” – the infill-oriented growth vision that resulted from the regional “Compass” project.

In the end, the Regional Council agreed to back the pilot program, sending it on to Sacramento for further consideration. But many local governments in the SCAG region still appear to be wary of the idea, fearing it will lead in the direction of mandating implementation of the 2% approach. (Full disclosure: My firm, Solimar, has worked under several SCAG contracts oriented toward implementing the 2% Strategy.)

How the SCAG pilot program works out is an important bellwether for regional planning in the state. All four major metropolitan regions – the Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego, and SCAG – have conducted regional “blueprint” projects that have resulted in a regional consensus to pursue an infill-oriented, high-density, “smart growth” approach. Now it is crunch time. Local governments must decide whether to follow through and implement the blueprints, which are especially controversial in the area of housing.

The SCAG region is the state’s “big kahuna” for infill – and for controversy over the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment program, or RHNA. The implementation phase at SCAG, as elsewhere, emphasizes the tension between “smart growth” philosophy – which generally emphasizes the quality of places and projects – and both state and federal housing and transportation planning practices, which focus on the numbers.

SCAG has long been known for bruising RHNA battles, partly because – with six counties and 180 cities – it is by far the largest regional planning agency in the nation. The last RHNA period was supposed to cover 1998-2005, though, because of internal disputes and lawsuits, SCAG did not complete the process until a settlement agreement was signed in 2004.

Frankly, it has always amazed me how seriously local governments within SCAG and elsewhere take the RHNA and housing element process, considering the long odds of something bad happening if they ignore it. If a city does not have a housing element certified by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the city can’t qualify for affordable housing grants and loans. That is hardly punishment for a community that does not want affordable housing to begin with. The city also is theoretically vulnerable to a judge’s decision to strip the jurisdiction’s ability to issue permits – but this happens very rarely in real life.

But for many local governments, there’s just something offensive about the idea that the state – or a regional planning agency such as SCAG – can tell them how much housing they must plan for and how they must zone their land. It pushes their buttons.

The proposed pilot RHNA program from SCAG pushed all kinds of local government buttons. For one thing – in keeping with the agenda of outgoing Business, Transportation, and Housing Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak’s approach – the pilot project calls for every jurisdiction to identify a 20-year supply of land and rezone enough land for 10 years of needed housing.

But what appears to make the locals most nervous is the ways in which the pilot program would link the RHNA to implementation of the 2% Strategy. To see what is going on here, it’s important to understand that SCAG is trying to mesh three different “moving targets”:

• The RHNA, which is a top-down, state-driven process requiring local governments to plan for housing based on state demographic forecasts.
• The Regional Transportation Plan, or RTP – SCAG’s main responsibility under federal law – which is supposed to map out the solution to traffic problems created by current and future development patterns.
• The 2% Strategy, an infill-oriented approach that will form part of the basis for the RTP but is strictly voluntary for local governments, according to SCAG.

Combining all three is elegant in theory. Not only do the RTP and the RHNA operate under different philosophical approaches to growth forecasts, they also operate under different timelines (2007-2010 and 2008-2014, respectively). By merging these two processes – and bumping the RHNA for two years in the process – SCAG and its member local governments could operate off of only one growth forecast, not two. (The way the system is supposed to work, SCAG’s growth forecast would be created for transportation purposes, then amended based on a variety of local constraints – sewer and water capacity, open space, agricultural preservation – that are currently contained in state law.)

To the extent that this doesn’t line up with the 2% Strategy, SCAG could encourage locals to do more infill – and maybe even encourage some locales to take more than their RHNA numbers – by providing infrastructure funds and regulatory relief that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Elegant in theory. Even though the Regional Council approved the pilot program, it is clear from the formal comments made by cities and counties that many locals are wary because they fear the pilot program will be a way to impose 2%-style higher densities on them. In its responses, SCAG stuck consistently to the line that the RHNA is a consensus process and 2% implementation is voluntary. As a result, SCAG has had to finesse the question of whether the 2% Strategy is designed to deliver numerical results.

As the SCAG staff wrote in response to one comment from a city: “The Compass program will always be voluntary, however, the Compass is not about the ‘number,’ rather it is a series of policy instruments built upon incentives tie (sic) to performance (i.e., beyond and above local inputs) and tie (sic) to well-delineated 2% opportunity areas.” SCAG’s further comments suggest that the agency simply hopes that by adopting such policy instruments “the [desired] distribution could be realized by the end of the planning period.”

And therein lies the rub. It’s not about which numbers to use so much as it’s about whether to use numbers at all. In the pursuit of smart growth, all of us – not just SCAG — are straddling. Smart growth advocates – myself included – often argue that focusing on numbers is a divisive enterprise, and instead we should focus on the quality and pattern of urban development. But we’re still stuck with the numbers-oriented state housing law, as well as the numbers-oriented federal law requiring the RTP.

To some extent, the smart growthers are operating on faith, hoping that people will like the on-the-ground results enough that, in the end, they will accept higher numbers. Almost inevitably, the jurisdictions in question here are the older suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, the South Bay, and southern Los Angeles and northern Orange Counties. Yet many of these same cities are the ones most resistant to growth and to SCAG, whereas most new development still occurs in the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley.

It remains to be seen whether faith is any match for hard numbers.