As Peggy Huang drove through the hills of Yorba Linda, she passed ranch-style homes with backyard stables.
White picket fences lined equestrian trails snaking through the Orange County city, whose motto is the “Land of Gracious Living.”
Farther uphill, newer houses were closer together but still featured the open space most suburban residents desire, with trails, parks and churches nearby.
Huang, a city councilwoman, wants Yorba Linda to stay this way.
Along with officials in many other O.C. cities, she is fighting a state mandate to build new homes — more than 183,000 countywide over the next seven years.
The requirement, called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, dates back more than five decades, with new goals set for each city every eight years.
“I’m not a NIMBY,” Huang said, using an acronym for “not in my backyard.” “I just think it’s important for people to understand that one size fits all doesn’t work, and that’s the very policy Sacramento is pushing on us.”
As home prices climb, fueled in part by a long-standing housing shortage, the stakes have never been higher for well-heeled suburbs like Yorba Linda.
Many young couples can’t afford to buy homes. Low-income workers are struggling to pay the rent. Homeless people are pitching tents in places where poverty had never been visible.
The argument is about how many units of new housing each city should be required to accommodate. It is also about the essence of Orange County, which is becoming more racially diverse, more politically liberal — and more crowded.
Some say that change is inevitable and the burden to create affordable housing must be shared by all communities, not just those that are already densely packed.
But residents fear that what they love about Yorba Linda — the pastoral landscapes, the wide-open boulevards, the privacy — could be lost if too many others join them.
“There’s this idea that Orange County is a cluster of suburban communities far away from the ills of the big city,” said Elizabeth Hansburg, co-founder and executive director of People for Housing Orange County. “It has a nostalgia for low-density suburban development, where everyone has their single-family home, but we don’t have that kind of space anymore. We have to build higher-density housing and in a way that really violates Orange County’s sense of self.”
In every eight-year cycle, cities are assigned a certain number of new units under a complex formula that anticipates future housing needs.
A state agency specifies an overall number to regional planning agencies, which then divvy up the units among cities and counties in their jurisdiction.
In 2020, the Southern California Assn. of Governments was responsible for distributing 1,341,827 units of new housing among cities in Los Angeles, Orange, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
The association calculated that O.C. should zone for about 183,000 new units. Yorba Linda’s share was 2,400 of those units, with about half for low- or very low-income residents.
To fulfill the requirement, cities identify areas where zoning can be changed to allow new development.
Yorba Linda officials recently identified 27 sites —including church parking lots, an event venue and a hotel — for possible zoning changes. They were hoping to decrease their requirement to between 70 and 211 new homes.
Nearly half of O.C. cities, including Yorba Linda, filed appeals with the association asking for their numbers to be reduced. Nearly two dozen cities in L.A. County also appealed.
Some cities argued that the bulk of new homes should be placed near jobs and public transit or in places that have more open space to build.
After the appeals failed, the Orange County Council of Governments sued the state and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, arguing that the number of new units in the six-county region should be 651,000.
Redondo Beach, Lakewood, Torrance, Cerritos, Downey and Whittier were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was dismissed in November by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.
The O.C. Council has said it plans to appeal.
In O.C., some city officials see the building requirements as overreach by state officials who haven’t spent time in the area and aren’t familiar with the geographic limitations.
Newport Beach Councilwoman Diane Dixon says she wants to maintain Orange County’s character.
“Who wants to live in a congested urban environment?” she said. “That’s why people move to Orange County in the first place.”
Dixon, who is a member of the Orange County Council of Governments, is concerned that the state housing mandates will result in rapid growth, ultimately stripping away cities’ control over development.
Newport Beach, which like many O.C. cities has little undeveloped land, must find room for more than 4,800 new homes.
That means construction would have to spread upward, not outward, resulting in a more urban landscape.
But others say more growth in suburban communities is necessary to combat the shortage of available homes and the upward trajectory of housing costs.
“Supply and demand tells you that more houses will help ease upward pressure on prices,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine. “California doesn’t have enough houses at the moment compared to its population and the purchasing power of the population.”
Hansburg, the housing advocate, points to the divide between homeowners trying to preserve their lifestyles and renters dealing with rising prices in an already unaffordable market.
“They’re saying this isn’t an Orange County problem, and what I’m saying is it is as much an Orange County problem as it is a problem for any other place in California,” she said.
The last Regional Housing Needs Assessment plan required Yorba Linda, which has a population of about 68,000, to create 669 new housing units. The city exceeded that, issuing building permits for 932 units between 2014 and 2019.
In a commercial and office hub called Savi Ranch adjacent to the 91 Freeway, two new apartment complexes were welcomed by many locals, partly because there are no single-family neighborhoods nearby.
All of the roughly 120 units are priced to be affordable for people making 30% to 60% of the area’s median income.
“They kind of fit there,” said longtime Yorba Linda resident Dee Dee Friedrich. “If you have to have it, that seems to be a better place.”
But Friedrich and others don’t want their own quintessentially Yorba Linda neighborhoods to change.
Friedrich moved there nearly 40 years ago, mainly because the lots were large enough for horses, which she had always dreamed of owning.
Recently, she has been concerned that someone might buy on her street, where each home sits on a half acre, and build multiple units.
“That’s just not why we live here and moved here and worked our whole lives to be able to afford to live here,” she said. “We like that we can have a little space between us.”
Residents and city officials are also concerned about wildfires.
When the Freeway Complex fire tore through the hills in 2008, thousands piled belongings into their cars and fled. Yorba Linda Boulevard was gridlocked. Then came the Blue Ridge fire in 2020, which renewed residents’ concerns.
Huang, who was born in Taiwan and is a state deputy attorney general, fears that the more people there are, the harder it will be to evacuate when the next fire ignites.
“With more housing and more density, how are we supposed to make sure people can get out safely?” she said.