Saturday, May 9, 2015

Keeping Inland Empire Housing Affordable

Workers should be able to live in a quality, family-friendly home in LA, Orange County and San Diego too.

Suburban tract house
Can a family-friendly spacious housing unit like this be integrated into future urban housing plans in dense job hubs?
© Wikimedia Commons/BrendelSignature CC-BY-SA

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


I'm keeping a close watch on housing prices throughout the region which includes both purchase prices and rentals.

The local job market has been seeing improvements which in turn drives up demand for a place to call home in our region. With that, property values and housing costs are continuing to go up.

While land and property values do increase whenever the economy and job markets are healthy, I must also point that rising housing unit costs and rentals cannot be allowed to spiral out of control to the point where hard-working families and full-time entry-level employees are priced out and have to relocate miles away from work. That is already evident in parts of LA County, Orange County, San Diego County, and San Francisco.

That drives up demands for development in undeveloped regions and promotes long distance commuting (a.k.a. urban sprawl).

The truth is Southern Califorina has seen this pattern for way too long and we must not allow it to continue.

You may recall that as jobs grew in Los Angeles after World War II combined with the invention of the private automobile, bad social conditions in many neighborhoods like South LA drove up demands for people to relocate to new communities within the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County. Workers would live in spacious homes and drive in daily into the urban core.

Soaring demands for a better quality of life away from LA's social riff-raff basically turned the endless fields of citrus groves into sprawling bedroom communities. To this day, South LA remains off the list for many homebuyers because of the ongoing bad social conditions and gang crime, but to be fair, the good people of LA have not given up. They are working extremely hard to take their city back from the criminal gang culture, rebuilding broken family units and offering various restorative justice programs. Combined with strong law enforcement, the region has been seeing signs of improvement. One local high school has adopted a restorative justice program as a means of student discipline. South Central LA needs a unified voice and with continued efforts, it will become a desirable place to live.

Meanwhile during the 90's and 2000's, the job market in Orange County soared. OC therefore ceased to be a bedroom community with urban job hubs in Irvine, South Coast Metro, and several other regions.

Likewise, the job market in West LA went up. Because quality housing supplies generally failed to keep up with the soaring demands as more workers streamed into these regions, prices which included rentals went through the roof. Prices in less-desirable places like South LA remained affordable.

Because desirable places to live became expensive, people then looked into the Inland Empire. During late 90's and early 2000's more bedroom communities materialized. That is, more urban sprawl.

Now, Inland housing prices are on the rise as the logistics, goods movement, manufacturing and medical sectors develop hubs in the region. There is no question we need the jobs. Bring them in. But the cities must prepare for an increased demand in local housing from local workers. If the housing price rise is left unchecked, that will drive up development demands beyond the outer fringes of the Inland Empire, possibly beyond the borders of the Coachella and Victor Valley regions.

We cannot allow this pattern to continue.

Coalition Concept: Smart growth concepts for San Bernardino
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by any public entity or developer.
To be fair, there is very little that can be done about the actual land and property values. If a region has a balanced job-to-housing ratio with high-paying jobs, expect high property values.  However that does not mean that housing unit prices like rentals or a spacious 3,000 square foot unit in a condo tower need to be out of control or unaffordable. $2,000 per month plus utilities for a one bedroom unit or $600,000 for a 3-5 bedroom house would be out of the ballpark for many workers.

Across the Santa Ana Mountains, you know OC prices are unaffordable to many workers. I've already pointed out that this must change.

A family whose breadwinner works in the Irvine Business Complex should have the option to purchase a spacious 3-5 bedroom 3,000 square foot condo unit with plenty of living space in a condo tower complex complete with a large community commons area within the job hub for about $300,000 with a monthly payment of about $2,000. The condo complex land property value would be worth millions, but the stacked units would be affordable and family-friendly.

Infill Urban Housing: Bunker Hill Towers in Downtown Los Angeles with a huge private community commons and pool area.
Increased supplies and better competition can make renting and purchasing such units more affordable for downtown workers.
Good competition between developers would keep these unit prices affordable. Developers would make bank because spacious 3-5 bedroom units worth $300,000 each can be stacked in a single 20-30 story residential tower at dense job hubs like the Irvine Business Complex area. Four units per floor would equate to 80 units in a 20-story building and 120 units for a 30-story tower. In the surrounding suburbs, the lighter-weight areas can support 3-5 story structures near existing retail centers with up to 20 spacious units per building. Each residential building would occupy just under an acre of land.

Local governments in the Inland Empire need to be prepared for this growth so their residents can continue to afford to live here.

In a future set of posts, I'll compile how these 3,000 square foot family-friendly units can be integrated into in-fill development plans along existing commercial and retail corridors. Smart growth critics are correct that we should not be crammed into Cracker Jack box-sized living quarters whenever growth demands go up. Nor should regions be over-densified. That's why there needs to be better smart growth competition among developers.

Plus, housing developers need to be held accountable to help fund or construct transportation infrastructure between the new units and existing job hubs. That would include expediting bus transit improvements such as implementing Bravo! BRT through the Irvine Business Complex area, implementing track improvements for frequent Metrolink service, and funding the I-15 Express Lanes master plan between the High Desert and San Diego County.

With the soaring demands for Orange County housing these days, I would think this would be a developer's dream to expand supply and competition to improve selection and lower prices. Local governments need to streamline the regulatory process to make this possible. But now, we have a similar price situation potentially brewing here in the Inland Empire.

I will say that the City of Temecula is experiencing this, but the city is actively exploring expanding urban housing options along a commercial corridor west of the I-15 freeway. That should help keep local prices under some control, but the other Inland Empire cities need to get on board as well so that competition for quality housing increases which would help balance the job-to-housing ratio and end this troubling pattern of urban sprawl.

Let's keep living in the Inland Empire affordable.

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