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We are the problem in California’s housing shortage

Everything everyone — by which I mean the wrong ones, the NIMBYs — says about housing in Southern California is always wrong.

A favorite trope, loved by letter-to-the-editor writers, who just make things up — sorry, letter-writers, whose gemlike prose I edit and publish every day — is that the coming of more and more multi-family housing to our megalopolis is nuts because we are in a drought and all those new people will use up even more water.

Fact: Take your average Southland single-family homestead, raze it and replace it with an eight-unit apartment building, and you’d be … saving water.

That’s because, even in our xeriscaped age, unless you have Astroturfed your entire yard, your landscaping uses a lot more water than your sinks, shower and dishwasher do.

We human beings are abstemious sippers in the water game compared with our friends the plants. Mere garglers compared with those lushes.

When the drought gets end-game serious with our state, it’s agriculture that’s not going to make the cut. Big Ag accounts for 80% of the water usage in our state. It needs to get more efficient or move to some rainy place. (As a gardener, I understand it’s more complicated than that. Jungles are not a great place to grow much.) The people will stay on, because: California.

But, clearly, our city halls also get it terribly wrong about housing. They, too, just make things up. Staff Writer Jeff Collins’ fascinating story last Sunday about the lies our cities tell about where they intend to put more housing nailed that fact down, hard.

To be fair, the cities are fibbing because they are under pressure from Sacramento to do so. As our editorials in these pages are forever noting, we need hundreds of thousands of more houses and apartments in California, and the Legislature therefore sends out quotas. Tiny South Pasadena, pop. 26,000, for instance, was told by the state that it needs to help create 2,067 housing units.

Ever take a drive around South Pas? Empty lots: 0. Neighborhoods with multi-family? Very, very few. It’s wall-to-wall charming, pricey bungalows.

As Collins’ story told, resident Josh Albrektson went around his city last year to look at the places City Hall had designated to pretend-build housing in order to make the state happy.

One place: City Hall itself, on bustling Mission Street. No one is going to tear down the beautiful City Hall.

The Pavilions market down Fair Oaks Avenue is currently undergoing a massive, expensive remodel. By 2030, the city lied to the state, it would be the site of 133 new homes. Never was gonna happen.

After Albrektson called them on it, South Pas city planners last month took a number of the many absurd sites that supposedly had a “reasonable” chance of being turned into new housing off the list.

It was indeed a “paper exercise.” Essentially every city in the state takes part in the fabrication. It’s sweet to call them out on it. But that doesn’t make the problem go away.

“We’re in the midst of a housing shortage, (with) estimates that we need over 3 million more homes in the state,”  Rafa Sonnenfeld, director of legal advocacy at YIMBY Law, or Yes In My Backyard, told Collins. “Cities unwilling to plan for those homes are part of the problem.”

Cities are run by elected officials. The people who voted them in can also vote them out. SCAG may say we need 1.34 new homes by the end of the decade. Not in my backyard, we don’t, say voters. They, instead, crazily want a “housing moratorium” in the midst of real-estate price insanity and tragic homelessness. It’s not city halls at fault here. It’s us.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. [email protected]



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