August 1, 2002 - From the August, 2002 issue

Riverside & Orange Counties, With Inter-Regional Grant, Address Jobs/Housing Imbalance

The imbalance between jobs and housing across cities and regions is a growing regional concern. The Inland Empire has been expanding its housing base at a phenomenal rate. Meanwhile, Orange County is seeing its economic base grow and its housing stock stagnate. To address the problem, the Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG) and the Orange County COG were awarded an Interregional Partnership Grant. To discuss the issue and the grant, TPR is pleased to present this interview with Brea Councilwoman Bev Perry and the Executive Director of WRCOG, Rick Bishop.


Bev Perry

The Western Riverside Council of Governments recently was awarded an interregional partnership grant from the state. Rick,could you give our readers some background on the purpose of this grant and what the money will be used to for by the Riverside Council?

RB: We are experiencing a significant job/housing imbalance where the housing stock is increasing but the job base isn't following as quickly. We have put together two programs, in partnership with Orange and San Diego Counties, to look at strategies that focus in on how we might be able to augment our employment base in Western Riverside County. For Orange and San Diego Counties, their interest is to look for ways to augment the supply of housing, specifically working class, affordable housing.

Rick, why do we need interregional partnership grants? What are the obstacles for counties and regions to collaborate on the challenges that face all of you?

RB: Regional planning is very difficult to get consensus on. There is an avoidance of committing to any kind of a regional approach that begins to change the direction of land-use, land-use control and even land-use advice. And so that probably has been, and will continue to be, one of the biggest obstacles to regional planning.

That being said, this is probably one of the times you've seen Councils of Government work together amongst themselves. So it's a bit ironic that Councils of Governments, who are proponents of regional and sub-regional planning, haven't initiated too many partnerships before. This is really an opportunity for us to work with our neighbors on some of these common issues.

What would constitute success, Rick?

RB: We've already achieved some success by getting elected officials together to talk about regional and sub-regional issues.

We all recognize that we cannot be simplistic in our approach here. We can't say that if a jobs/housing balance will eliminate the need for future road building. I think the success of this program will be in taking small steps to take some pressure off of the existing arterials that serve the two counties. As we continue to make improvements to our road system, we are able to maximize the effectiveness of those investments by perhaps bringing some small shifts in land-use approach. I think that'd be really successful.

Let's turn to the job/housing imbalance in Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County and the surrounding region. How do you plan on coordinating these efforts through this grant?

RB: We're initiating a comprehensive residents' commuter survey in Western Riverside County and South Western Riverside County. We are hoping to get an idea of the length of their commute, the purpose of their commute, the hours that they commute, and, at the same time, probe more deeply to find out whether certain economic and environmental factors would alter their commuting patterns. We're also going to survey employers in San Diego and Orange Counties, to get some information about points where they might think about relocating either all or portions of their operations into the western part of the Riverside County.

And how do you deal with turf problems arising in response to the impact of your business attraction policy. What's the push back from Orange and San Diego?

RB: One thing that may be starting to emanate out of those counties, that perhaps didn't 5-10 years ago, is the mutual understanding of the significance of this issue. I think there is a recognition that there are significant problems that come with having an employment base that is so large that you can't supply proximate housing for it. Those areas realize that their housing supply has not kept pace with the employment growth that is occurring.

Rick, over the last decade, there has been a substantial cut back in regional planning support at the local and state levels that affects Councils of Governments like yours. What's the price we pay for not grappling in advance with issues such as congestion and a jobs/housing imbalance?

RB: The problem we've all had is that there hasn't been that kind of regional collaboration, commitment, and leadership that's really needed. What we're trying to do, as far as these partnerships are concerned, is to create something where there's been a void. If we can work with key elected officials to build consensus on the importance of these issues-that in fact, regional issues do strongly impact the local decisions that are made-our regional funding commitments will go farther.

Who should be a part of this effort besides local officials? Is there a civic piece to this?

RB: There is a really strong recognition that a number of players need to be involved. We're going to be targeting builders, local businesses, chambers, environmental organizations, housing advocate groups, and others that might have an interest in this work.

What are the incentives that will bring people to the table to work with the leaders we're talking about?

RB: One of the incentives comes from an indirect approach. For example, in the Southern California region, SCAG puts together a regional transportation plan every three years which tries attempts to demonstrate how the region will keep the transportation system in step with future development. That's a $120,000 billion expenditure plan.

If we don't incorporate into our thinking local land-use decisions in a regional context, our planning approaches will fail to address critical regional infrastructure issues.

So, one of the incentives we are going to emphasize is to highlight the need to change the way we're thinking about the future, what future needs, what the future demographics are of our population will be, both age-wise and density-wise, and what they're housing and commute needs will be. We might not be planning for the population that's actually going to be here in 20 years.

Are organizations such as the Western Riverside Council of Governments, and Orange County Council of Governments and SCAG the best models for leading regional planning efforts?

RB: I think that they are the best organizations to engage in these discussions right now, simply because they are the only entities in Southern California that provide a comprehensive forum for discussing these issues.

What's in it for the Orange County Council of Governments and for SCAG to participate with the Western Riverside Council of Governments in this interregional partnership grant?

BP: We want a happy and productive workforce. Many of Orange County's workers do live and commute from the Inland Empire, especially from Riverside County. Given the awful commute along the 91 freeway and down the 57 freeway, it is worth it to us to explore this problem.

Also, we have a responsibility to find a way to provide housing of all different kinds, especially affordable housing, so that people don't have to commute from the Inland Empire into Orange County to go to work each day.

How did we get into this jobs and housing imbalance and how do we get out?

RB: What we're seeing in the Inland Empire now is probably similar to what was happening in Orange County 30-40 years ago when that areas was viewed as an inexpensive suburban alternative to metropolitan Los Angeles. One of the efforts of our partnership is to look for ways to accelerate business development in

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Riverside, either through legislative proposals, policy proposals, or implementing additional ways to move people between the two counties in a manner that will maximize our needed road investments. Without this partnership, we won't see the job base catch up to the housing supply.

BP: I think what Rick said is absolutely right in terms of the evolution. The situation may be even more challenging because of the mountains separating Riverside and Orange Counties. There really are only two ways in and out-the 91 and the 57 coming off the 60. At some point it's going to become so congested that people are going to just throw their hands up and say you have to fix this.

Also, because land is so much less expensive in the Inland Empire and Riverside County than it is in Orange County, at some point, business leaders will have to think the smart thing to do is to move their business to where their workers are.

In our focus groups, we also discovered some interesting dynamics with regard to people's housing choices. In addition to affordability and quality of life, we started seeing some people say, "I like where I live and don't you bring jobs and more congestion out here to Riverside County." That was a surprise to us.

Why can't the private sector or the market address these problems? What's the role of the public agencies versus that of the private sector?

BP: I think it has to be a partnership between the two and that is something we very much want to do with this interregional grant.

The elected officials are taking the lead, but you definitely have to bring the business sector plus the non-profit and civic organizations into the mix to find out why businesses aren't moving to Riverside County and why houses are not being built in Orange County.

Also, there may be some things out there that we intuitively don't think about that are reasons why people want to be where they are-moving jobs where people are living isn't necessarily going to solve the imbalance. We must try to create a better mix of jobs and housing, but also look at how can we decrease congestion and make commuting easier so that people have choices.

Rick, if I heard your comments correctly, you said by the time of the Riverside build-out, this would all be taken care of. How do you respond?

RB: Interestingly enough, when you poll the Riverside County residents, they tend to indicate that they will put up with those long commutes if it means avoiding having employers making their way out to Riverside County. People associate employment growth with more residential growth.

This demonstrates that we need a strong educational component to help people understand that, despite the wide open spaces in Riverside County, this is Southern California and it's going to be home to six million more people in the next 20 years, many who will locate in Riverside County. You're going to see a much different looking Riverside County in 20-30 years than exists now.

You've also got people in Orange County under the impression that they are in a suburban environment. My view of OC is very much different-it's an emerging metropolitan region. Riverside County is going to be the same thing a couple decades down the road.

BP: I think what Rick just said it so important. I still run into people in Orange County who think they live in a suburb, yet we're the 4th densest county in the United States. Residents don't want to think of themselves as Los Angeles. Well guess what? In terms of size and density and everything else, we are! So the way we build from now on in Orange County needs to be different.

Bev, when you present your focus group and polling findings to residents, etc., what choices are they going to have?

BP: I'm hoping that Orange County will open itself up to a variety of housing choices, including mixed-use and higher density developments. I would also hope that Riverside County adopts a similar mix of housing choices, because a lot of what you see out there is mimicking what Orange County did in the beginning.

I'm hoping that Riverside doesn't run into the same problems that we're running into now. I'd also like to see a mix of businesses in Riverside that take advantage of the skills of the County's labor base, reducing their need to commute.

Lastly, our transportation agencies have to work together to find ways to not just build more roads. You can't build your way out of this. We need to find other transit options-be it light rail, commuter rail, more express buses-so that people can have a commute that doesn't make them crazy.

RB: Well I would agree with that 100%. A recurring theme I hear from people is that we're different out here in Riverside County and we don't want to become this sprawling area that Los Angeles became. And yet, when you take a look at the planning practices, assumptions and approaches that are in place in this region, there's little difference from the current metropolitan template.

This is probably one of the few areas in Southern California that has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of the larger metropolitan areas. This partnership will be a success if we can help our elected officials, planners and the public understand the challenges and opportunities that exist.

Bev, Iif a year from now we come back and do this interview, how will we know if we've made any progress as a result of this grant and this collaboration?

BP: If we have agreement between our counties to things we might be able to do together, that would be progress. Orange County tends to be "we want all the jobs." Why can't we partner with Riverside and make sure that, for everybody's quality of life, some of those jobs go out there where it makes more sense for them to go instead of adding to the congestion in Orange County?

Lastly, if we see changes in the regional transportation plans for Orange County and for Riverside County and throughout the SCAG region that show new types of transportation choices, that will also be progress.

What's the role of the state and the feds in helping you out in this region?

BP: As far as I'm concerned, the state has got to get their act together between the Department of Housing and Community Development, Caltrans, the air quality and resources agencies, etc. They need to get on the same page and make sure that their policies have some synergy so that we, at the local level, can plan without running into brick walls which ever way we go.

Also, at the federal level, they keep telling us that housing is important. Well, I just read that Congress, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, cut housing budgets enormously. Homeland security is all well and good, but people have to have a home in the homeland to secure.

They keep cutting the money for housing and when you are in a very expensive land area, such as Orange County, we need help, we need dollars, and they keep cutting those budgets. They speak with forked tongues.

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