April 19, 2006 - From the MIR, April, 2006 issue

Western Riverside COG Contemplates Growth, Calls for I.E. to Embrace Density, Variety

In 2004 the Southern California Association of Governments published its "Compass" Growth Vision Report, which concluded that 2 percent of the region's land could accommodate all of its growth. The Western Riverside Council of Governments has been figuring out how to respond to SCAG's guideline in a rapidly growing sub-region known for homogeneous sprawl. In this speech delivered recently at USC's Lusk Center for Real Estate, WRCOG Executive Director Rick Bishop explains how density will finally make landfall in Riverside County.

Rick Bishop

Southern California is growing very quickly. Sixteen million people now live in the six-county SCAG region. About six million more will join us in the next couple of decades, and that growth is dispersed all over the Southland. Riverside County will double in the next 20 years or so, and some forecast that by the year 2040 up to 4.5 million people may live there.

In just the last decade the SCAG region added about a half-million jobs and almost 2 million people, and we've built about 400,000 homes to accommodate them. But we needed about 630,000 homes to accommodate that population to avoid severe overcrowding. If you think long-term-and long-term really isn't that far away; it's just two decades-we need to add 2 million homes. So really the challenge for us is, should all of the two million homes that need to be built be built on single-family lots? In western Riverside County the desire for single family homes on large lots is still preferred.

But does everybody want the same home? Do we go to a restaurant and yearn to see a menu on which every item is the same? Of course we don't. Yet, we tend to zone, plan, and build our communities -especially our new communities -in this very manner. A homogeneous environment seems to be very desirable.

What are the causes and effects of this pattern of home-building? Home prices are in many cases driving where people are moving – the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties), and north Los Angeles County are the more affordable new suburbs that are now growing quickly. In Orange County the median-priced home is over $600,000; in Riverside it's less than $400,000, so we're seeing a lot of home construction inland because, compared to coastal areas, the value of the dollar for housing remains high.

But as more people move into western Riverside County to fill those homes, they end up driving longer and longer distances to reach their jobs. People are living in western Riverside County, but they still tend to have higher-paying jobs in Orange, L.A., and San Diego counties, so they commute. By the way, Riverside County is the fastest-growing county in the state, numerically, not by percentage. And numerically it's the second-fastest growing county in the country, behind only Maricopa County, Arizona.

If you think the 91 Freeway is congested now from people commuting from inland to coastal areas, you haven't seen anything yet. SCAG estimates about 270,000 trips per day coming from the Inland Empire into L.A. and Orange counties today; the forecast is for that to nearly double in the next 20 years. And that's without any foreseeable, tangible transportation improvements to accommodate this surge in traffic. So the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. peak traffic time could, obviously, be extended to earlier and later hours in the morning as people commute to the coastal counties for work, and in the evening when they commute back home.

SCAG's Regional Transportation Plan, which is a 20-year forecast, calls for about a $120 billion in transportation spending. And there are not many improvements in regional congestion that result from that spending, simply because of the volume of growth that Southern California will experience. If you're adding six million people, you're doing very well just to tread water, and that's about what we get out of the Regional Transportation Plan and $120 billion. Part of the reason for that is it doesn't look like we are about to change our approach to getting from place to place in the future. We like driving around in our cars-by ourselves-and forecasts don't call for any significant shifts in our commuting behavior either. But sooner or later, something has to give. The 91 Freeway is sort of like the Nathan's hot dog-eating contest – you can keep stuffing them in, but at some point a critical mass is reached, and it's not pretty.

As far as finding solutions, western Riverside County has done some ground-breaking things. Western Riverside County's Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee (TUMF) is the largest development fee program for transportation in the United States. Every new home that's built in western Riverside County pays a fee to offset its impacts to the regional transportation system; non-residential development pays fees as well. WRCOG allocates those fees to build arterials, railroad overcrossings, bridges, and otherwise improve the regional arterial network to accommodate that growth. In all, it's a $4.5 billion effort. WRCOG currently collects up to $2 million each week in fees from new development. And, in just two years, nearly $400 million has been programmed for almost 100 TUMF projects, and more than 50 projects are already in the works.

WRCOG has also looked beyond its own boundaries to develop solutions. We partnered with the Orange County COG to look at job-housing balance back in 2001 through a grant received from the state Department of Housing and Community Development. As part of that effort, we surveyed 2,000 commuters who were commuting from Riverside to Orange County.

We asked a myriad of questions regarding why they work so far from their jobs and what circumstances might effect a change in their behavior and make them want to live closer to their job. Most everybody commutes by themselves; most believe that there are higher paying jobs in Orange County. We then started to ask folks about the major factors for choosing a home, and this is where a real penchant for that single-family home – the "American dream" – surfaced. Affordability, safety, and "overall look and feel," were at the top of the list of preferences. Of more than ten criteria, the very last two include proximity to jobs and the availability of public transit.

We asked people why they don't live near work. Affordable housing was among the highest responses. We asked about housing preferences: When tasked with choosing between a single-family detached with a yard versus a condo, over 80 percent of respondents opted for the single-family home. What about being close to transit? Again, more than 80 percent deemed the opportunities for transit as unimportant.

I think that in part because Riverside County is so physically large and remains an evolving suburb, transit just isn't in the general mindset among many in western Riverside County.

And then there's the bottom line: 85 percent indicated a preference for a 45-minute commute and a single-family home over an equivalent attached unit and a minute commute. In other words, folks seem happy to drive if the trade-off for the drive is a single family home. But the problem, as I see it, is that people remain unaware of the tremendous growth being experienced in western Riverside County today, not to mention the forecasts for the long-term. They don't realize how bad traffic is going to get on a freeway that will see a nearly doubling of forecasted traffic in the next few years absent any committed improvements.


Another thing we remain interested in regards the continued public, nimby-ish resistance to higher density. We know, historically that higher-density products do not conjure a lot of support for a variety of reasons. Density is still viewed by many as being associated with higher crime rates and "the projects," despite the increasing number of fantastic developments that are being built throughout the region.

But not everyone really wants the same thing, do they? We tend to focus on that 85 percent who in our survey indicated the desire for that single-family home – that American dream – and assume that's what we should keep building. But what about that 15 percent who said they'd take the alternative if it was offered? At WRCOG, we see that as the opportunity to help plant some seeds about accommodating the future now, rather than later.

We want to promote diversity and livability in our developing communities, but not by condemning the continued construction of single family homes (remember, that's still clearly what people desire in our subregion). Instead, we want to focus on the folks who want "to order something different off the menu" and want a home that fits a lifestyle that a single family home doesn't. So we're starting to develop strategies that might help move in that direction, recognizing that in order to have vibrant, successful communities, our subregion's housing stock will need to be as diverse as the future residents are.

The bottom line for us is that it's all about what Riverside County wants to be, and what it will look like, in the future. We all tend to have difficulty looking 20 or 30 years into the future; instead it's easier to just think about and plan for today. But the housing stock we're building now will also serve a changing and diverse population that will be living here in 20 years.

We will have to play a protracted, expensive game of catch-up if we pretend that western Riverside County can and will remain a sleepy suburb forever. And we cannot also not blindly assume that growth controls or moratoriums can stem the tide of growth; people will come here whether we build or not. Quite simply, not growing is not an option.

Higher density housing in the right locations will be critically important to address projected regional population growth, the affordable housing crisis, the loss of valuable environmental resources, the need to conserve land, and other equally true and valued messages. Yet communities are still divided over the benefits of higher density housing. Although some community leaders are rethinking assumptions about higher-density housing, the larger public remains divided.

Many still believe that higher density housing is unattractive, contributes to traffic congestion and school crowding, attracts undesirable elements, and drains public services. Others see the positives that higher density housing can invigorate cities, expand housing options, reduce traffic and congestion, lower infrastructure costs, and foster an inclusive community. While both opinions deal with the quality of life, perhaps the real issue is more basic: the fear of change.

This is difficult to address because it is subjective, based on different things for different people. Technical studies and supportive appendices may help gain governmental approval for a project, but they never really change people's minds. If planners wish to effectively change public opinion regarding the benefits of higher-density housing, we must address the underlying fear of change.

The Western Riverside Council of Governments thought that, rather than just try to tell people about the benefits of high-density and mixed development, it might be more convincing to show them the possibilities. Sponsored by the Southern California Association of Governments, WRCOG has produced a short educational video titled "Another Step Forward." The video addresses a critical issue facing communities in western Riverside County – the availability of a range of housing types and prices. For a household earning median income, the percentage of affordable homes sold in Riverside and San Bernardino counties declined from 70 percent in 1999 to less than 20 percent in 2005.

During this period, more than 150,000 new homes were built, yet only 10 percent were large, multiple-family projects. At the same time, the significant boom in residential construction has led to the conversion of open space lands and the need to improve transportation infrastructure. This trend underscores the need to provide a wider range of housing options that can meet current and future needs, maximize our infrastructure investment, and conserve limited open space lands.

"Another Step Forward" is designed to motivate communities to address three challenges in western Riverside County: 1) how to provide enough housing to meet expected population and job growth, 2) how to increase housing choices to meet the varied needs of residents, and 3) how to place housing in the right locations to foster vibrant communities and improve our quality of life. Copies of "Another Step Forward" can be obtained by contacting the Western Riverside Council of Governments at (951) 955-7985.


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