Will California Housing and Wildfire Solutions Complement or Conflict?

California has two competing and inextricably linked crises to address: a severe housing shortage and recurrent catastrophic wildfires. How the state attempts to address one crisis could intensify the problems associated with the other—but it does not have to. California policies encouraging more residential housing can complement policies addressing the risks associated with worsening wildfires.

The Office of Planning and Research (OPR), however, is proposing guidance to California local agencies that would effectively remove the state’s scarcest resource for housing construction: developable land. But the policy is unnecessarily broad and could exacerbate California’s existing housing crisis.

Wildfire Technical Advisory Attempts to Solve One Crisis While Worsening Another

OPR recently released a draft Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory Document (Technical Advisory) to provide guidance to cities and counties as they revise their local general plans to minimize risks associated with wildfires. Although the Technical Advisory has the intent of serving as a resource for local agencies to use at their discretion to protect communities, the Technical Advisory encourages local governments to deny any “new land uses” throughout vast regions of the state unless avoidance is “infeasible.” This policy directive is problematic for several reasons.

First, approximately 30% of the developable land in California falls within “high fire hazard severity areas” contemplated by the Technical Advisory. Yet, California has been struggling year after year to build adequate and affordable housing under existing conditions. OPR’s recommended avoidance policy will only further decrease new residential development in California by rendering about one third of California off limits to any new housing.

Second, the policy does not recognize the state’s geographic diversity and implies a “one size fits all” approach. California’s fire safety and mitigation best practices lead the Nation and can be embedded in the development and construction of new housing in these areas. Numerous examples across California demonstrate that communities can safely build and live in these areas, so long as sufficient home hardening, fire breaks and adequate forest management are all applied.

Finally, the Technical Advisory creates a significant new legal hurdle for development project approvals by forcing project applicants to prove that avoidance is “infeasible,” an unreasonably high burden for any project. This new legal burden will be seized upon by project opponents to challenge new housing by arguing that avoidance is always feasible. Even if the project applicant should successfully defeat the challenge, the added litigation and risk will inevitably increase housing costs.

California Housing Crisis Continues

Overwhelming data indicates California’s housing crisis is getting worse, not better. Even the California State Auditor released a scathing new report detailing how California “is failing to build enough affordable housing in part because the state lacks an effective plan for how it will meet the statewide need for affordable housing.”

Year after year, California fails to meet even the minimum number of new residential units required to meet population demands, thereby growing the state’s housing deficit of 2-3 million residential units. The most recent data from the United States Census shows California’s new residential construction permits from January 1, 2020 through October 2020 totaled just 84,594. To put just how far behind this is to what we need, consider that to address the 2-3 million backlog and meet annual demands, most experts agree California would need to permit approximately 500,000 units annually, or 5 times what we saw in 2020.

Some local governments in California have a history of continued resistance to permitting new housing projects in their jurisdiction. Additionally, many communities face strong resistance from their own community to permit any additional new housing (NIMBYs). OPR’s recommended avoidance policy will become a pretext for some local governments to deny housing project approvals or adopt measures to make it difficult or impossible for certain projects to proceed. Additionally, an avoidance policy will provide local opposition to housing projects with even more legal arguments to sue, to delay or block projects.

OPR’s recommended avoidance policy does not sufficiently recognize the fire safety and mitigation already embedded in the development and construction of housing in California. California’s fire mitigation standards in the California Building Standards Code are among the strongest in the Nation and are updated every 18-months to reflect the best available science. Additionally, homebuilding fire safety standards were substantially enhanced with the inclusion of Title 14, Natural Resources Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, Chapter 7: Fire Protection, Article 2: Emergency Access and Egress into the California Code of Regulations (CCR).

Finally, the first full iteration of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) fire safety standards are also in place. New construction in California leads the way when it comes to fire safety and resiliency. A recent Los Angeles Times article concerning the October 2020 Silverado Fire in Orange County highlighted the fire safety strengths provided by new construction and master planned communities. Instead of overly broad policies rendering one-third of developable California off-limits, we should build upon the best management practices already developed to ensure housing is developed safely and responsibly, while simultaneously addressing the state’s wildfire issues through improved management, defensible spaces, fire hardening and other measures.

Adam Regele, Policy Advocate