After Abigail Margolle continued to see her apartment’s rent increase, she and her husband decided to look at houses for sale in South Orange County to buy as their first home.
“Rent was going up; it was just getting worse every few months when rent would tick up a little bit more,” Margolle said.
The couple rented in Dana Point, where Margolle previously served as a city Planning Commissioner, and looked to stay in South County. Ultimately, however, the family moved to Vista in San Diego County after struggling to find an affordable property that met their needs in the area.
Margolle noted that millennials like her are reaching a buying age where they’re interested in ownership. Whereas renting does not build equity, “real estate tracks inflation,” Margolle said.
“For me, (home ownership) was always a goal and for us, we were willing to sacrifice Dana Point, even though if we could buy tomorrow, we would have done that,” Margolle said. “We were willing to sacrifice Dana Point for a house that … ticked off some of our other boxes, and we got a little bit more land with it.”
For Margolle, owning property had always been a financial goal, dreaming of getting creative with her future home and renting out space to generate income.
With Margolle’s father living with her and her husband, the family had three incomes to put toward a home, yet still struggled to find a property that checked off all their boxes.
“We wanted to make sure we all had room; if it was an ADU type of situation, a back unit or something where (my dad) had his own space, it had to be a little bit bigger than a one-bedroom,” Margolle said. “But we needed that third income to get what we wanted. It helps cushion it, too, especially with the interest rates kind of going up.”
Margolle added that the lack of affordable housing is “pushing out people like me, born and raised in Orange County,” who are tired of renting and interested in purchasing a starter home.
“Affordability for my sake as a homeowner was such a struggle, and I feel for anyone less fortunate than me,” Margolle said. “Because I’m thinking if I can’t do it and I’m a married professional as a project manager in an architecture realm with a degree and my husband’s an engineer with a degree, if we can’t afford it, who can?”
Margolle’s not alone in her experience, as affordable housing stock is an ongoing issue that local, state and federal officials are working to address through legislation and policies.
While there’s generally a consensus that the issue persists, officials have varying perspectives on which agency should be responsible for tackling the housing shortage and whether local municipalities should have more control.
AN ASSEMBLYMEMBER’S APPROACH TO LAWS ON HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
While answering a question during the April 21 Dana Point Civic Association Coffee Chat, Assemblymember Laurie Davies opined on the state legislature taking away control from city governments as it works to address a statewide housing shortage.
“We know what’s best; let us do it our way,” Davies had said.
Speaking with The Capistrano Dispatch in mid-June, Davies stated that an approach to housing should include heavy collaboration between cities and state government.
“When we’re looking at housing and funding, I think it’s important that we do have good policy that we are able to hand on down to the local, municipal areas,” Davies said.
“However, especially serving on (Laguna Niguel) City Council and mayor for eight years, one of the reasons why I ended up coming up here is because I realized that they were taking a lot of the control away locally,” Davies continued.
Davies added that sometimes policy coming down from Sacramento has a “one-size-fits-all” approach, emphasizing the need to give city officials “a seat at the table” to ensure that development reflects the needs of the community.
“Especially when it comes to heights of buildings, how many units, lack of parking, things like that doesn’t always work—might work great in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but it’s not going to work in your smaller cities, especially in Orange County and other small communities,” Davies said.
For housing development to reflect the needs of each community, Davies said it’s important to remember that “one size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to policy.
“It’s important for us to be able to give (cities) the tools, but let them actually work with the design,” Davies said. “I think you’re going to have more of the residents more favorable to having more housing, because they’re not afraid that you’re going to go ahead and put up six stories when that’s … not reflecting the personality and character of the city.”
When making policy decisions, Davies noted that she’s always looking at the entire state and not just the district she represents.
“It’s so important that I realize that when I go ahead and I agree on a policy or I come up with a bill, that it’s going to be beneficial to everyone,” Davies said. “One size doesn’t fit all. So again, it’s giving them the tools but allowing the local control to make the decisions, especially when it comes to the makeup of their city.”
With some cities already built out, Davies argued in favor of a regional approach to housing development.
To plan and zone for future housing needs, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) allocated the number of units that cities and counties needed to plan for, broken down by income categories.
Based on the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), SCAG was assigned 1.34 million new homes to plan for among its 197 jurisdictions for the latest Housing Element—now in its sixth cycle. Orange County was to take on more than 183,861 of those homes.
“It’s one thing when they’re like, this is how many units you need to produce, but you have to make sure that’s actually attainable, and you’re finding that it really isn’t in a lot of areas,” Davies said.
To address this, Davies argued that areas that are more built out but have the finances to support housing development should be able to work with more rural cities with room to develop that lack the funding to reach RHNA numbers.
“Why don’t we allow other cities to come together and share those regional numbers?” Davies asked. “The bottom line is, if they really want something done and something built, this makes sense.”
Davies added that she’s met with the Association of California Cities Orange County and stakeholders to discuss how a regional approach to housing would work.
“We believe in development; we just want to make sure it’s common-sense development,” Davies said. “So, my goal is hopefully to take this and put it back as a bill next year.”
Davies, who also represents part of North San Diego County, added that she’s received feedback from that portion of her district in favor of a regional approach.
“No. 1 is that we have to make sure everybody comes to the table, because right now, when they’re throwing policy at the state level, they’re not including the cities at all, and it is our job as members to represent our cities, our district, and they have to be able to have a say at the table,” Davies said.
Another challenge to development is ensuring there’s adequate infrastructure in place for new housing.
“When they go in and they say, ‘These are your numbers, they have to be done by this time,’ well, you have to have infrastructure,” Davies said. “You can’t just build out housing without having infrastructure such as schools, grocery stores, gas stations, all of those things.”
Not planning adequately for housing demands, Davies noted, leads to a lack of housing.
“Until we can actually come together and make common-sense decisions so that we can actually build something that is affordable, we’re going to continue to watch people leave because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” Davies said.
Without housing laws in play, Davies argued that cities are still incentivized by the revenue that new residents bring in.
Davies added that cities are looking to at least maintain their current populations, if not continue to grow. Cities also need to plan for a variety of housing types to cater to different stages of life, Davies said.
“You start out where you have your apartments, but you’ve got your young adults staying there until they get married, and they move into more of a single-family home or maybe a condo,” Davies said. “Then perhaps into a little bigger house and then when the kids leave, they have the opportunity to sell the house but stay within their community.”
“So, you really want to make sure you have a little bit of everything there so that they’re not leaving the community,” Davies continued. “People love their communities; they want to be able to raise a family and stay there for that full generation cycle.”
LOCAL OFFICIALS’ PERSPECTIVES ON CONTROL OF HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
In response to Davies’ comment about state legislature taking away control from city governments, The Capistrano Dispatch sent a questionnaire to Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano’s City Councilmembers and their Planning Commission Chairs to seek their perspectives.
San Clemente Councilmember Mark Enmeier noted that there is often a temptation to simplify the argument of state versus local control to win political points with constituents, arguing that the issue is “much more complicated and nuanced than what we would like to believe.”
“On one side, there is a desire to maintain the character and charm of our local communities,” Enmeier said. “The worry is that a state assembly, which does not understand the local charm of our town, will invoke a change that disrupts the historical fabric of our city.”
“On the other side, the argument is made that we are in a statewide housing crisis due to the fact that cities have not individually kept up with demand,” Enmeier continued.
Ultimately, Enmeier concluded that he didn’t believe there is “a perfect answer to addressing our housing predicament. I do believe, however, that there are multiple answers, and we find them when we are willing to listen to each other, and when we are willing to work together.”
San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan noted that while local governments hold primary responsibility for local land-use policy, the state and federal governments protect renters from discrimination and the environment from unchecked development, as well as regulate insurance policies.
“All levels of government have some jurisdiction here, and they need to be working collaboratively to solve our housing crisis,” Duncan said.
Duncan noted that the city needs to build more affordable housing that fits with San Clemente’s character, adding that the population is shrinking because of the lack of affordable housing.
Allowing cities to develop and enforce their own design standards “strikes the appropriate balance and gives homeowners the certainty in knowing what they can and can’t do with their property,” Duncan said.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Knoblock of San Clemente claimed that state laws have had a “detrimental effect on affordable housing and the resulting community degradation and increased crime.”
Instead of local and state laws regulating housing, Knoblock argued that “the free marketplace determines best how to meet the local needs for housing, education and public safety.”
On the subject of ensuring that housing development is in line with the character of the community, San Juan Capistrano Mayor Howard Hart said the city “desires to build a community that enriches the lives of all who live here.”
“We don’t want to be just another sea of anonymous four-story stucco cubes that isolate our workers from their wealthy employers,” Hart said. “Statewide mandates undermine our ability to grow our community to meet housing challenges in a manner that fits our residents’ interests.”
Hart argued that state laws incentivizing “low-end housing construction” ultimately “help to ensure that the working poor remain relegated to standard housing and that a shortage of quality housing persists.”
Instead, Hart argued that the community needed to build more market-rate housing so “prices for these homes would not be as steep, natural upward home ownership progression would begin to churn again, and landlords would be incentivized to remodel and rehabilitate existing housing to compete for tenants.”
Hart said he felt that anything beyond RHNA goals and consequences for not meeting those goals “is micro-management by our state government.”
Both Hart and Davies argued in favor or reevaluating the CEQA process, which the two view as a hurdle for development.
Knoblock commented that San Clemente was “pretty much built out.”
“There are no available areas of undeveloped land on which to build,” Knoblock said. “Infill projects are our only areas which could be developed for housing.”
Duncan pointed to planned development of a new senior housing center and medical office as a success story resulting from a zoning code change, and pointed to the Los Molinos district as an area in the city where new housing could be developed.
Enmeier stated that if redeveloped, a mixed-use project at Pico Plaza, off the 5-Freeway and Avenida Pico, “has the potential to be a vibrant community that houses young professionals and civil service workers.”
Dana Point Councilmember John Gabbard noted that there are “a number of housing applications in process” and “each of those applications deserve our unbiased consideration without prejudgment or determination,” opting not to answer the survey questions in full.
“All that we can promise is that we are looking at all projects under the lens of the law and what benefits the fabric of our neighborhoods, the people and the community of Dana Point,” Gabbard said. “Boring, yes, but that’s what the impartial application of the law should be.”
None of the other councilmembers and none of the Planning Commission chairs for the three cities had responded to the survey as of press time.
Shawn Raymundo, C. Jayden Smith and Collin Breaux contributed to this report.