As the California interior burns, coastal cities continue to block housing

Earlier this year, Cal Fire released new fire hazard severity zone maps for the first time since 2007 and the results are bleak: the total acreage of lands projected to face a “very high” fire hazard increased by nearly 15 percent. More than half of rural California is now likely to be at constant risk of conflagrations not unlike the 2018 Camp Fire, which wiped out the town of Paradise. 

By one measure, 11 million Californians now live in fire-prone areas. That’s a quarter of the state. And this number is likely only going to rise: to the extent that we still build any housing, much of it goes up on the wildlife-urban interface, where risk is greatest. With insurers tripping over themselves to pull policies and raise premiums, many millions of California homeowners could soon find their homes uninsurable.

But why do so many Californians continue to move into the path of future fires? After all, most of the built-out areas of the Bay Area and metropolitan Los Angeles face little to no risk. If we’re going to keep the Golden State affordable and safe, these are precisely the places we should be building housing. And yet, all four of California’s major coastal cities continue to permit housing construction at historic lows. 

This mismatch isn’t by accident. On the contrary, it’s the result of planning policies that make it difficult to build anywhere other than the periphery. 

According to new research, barriers to building new infill housing in San Diego raise housing costs by 28 percent and explain seven percent of the ill-conceived reshuffling of San Diego families into at-risk areas. Absent changes in land-use regulations that block infill, the same paper estimates that the number of San Diegans forced to move into the path of future wildfires could increase by 12 percent by 2060. 

If high prices are any indication, many millions of Californians would like to live in existing climate-resilient urban areas, especially along the coast. But a thicket of regulations adopted decades ago—such as zoning bans on small-lot homes, townhouses, and apartments—make it difficult to build more housing in these places, giving many California families no choice but to move out to the exurbs. 

This is reflected in the 2020 Census data: within Orange County, the population of cities like Newport Beach and Costa Mesa has flatlined, and not for lack of demand. Both sport some of the highest housing costs in the state and yet both permit virtually no new housing construction. Indeed, based on state permitting data, Costa Mesa hasn’t permitted a single new home since 2020. 

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Meanwhile, across the Santa Ana Mountains, many thousands of homes continue to go up in the path of future wildfires in places like Beaumont and Menifee—two of the fastest-growing cities in the state. A similar story is playing out across California. Indeed, if you didn’t know any better, you might think Southern California is undergoing a coordinated exodus to the desert, as thousands of working- and middle-class families decamp for the Mojave each year.

For all the endless streams of subsidies for solar panels and Teslas, for all the “Science is Real” yard signs, the most climate-resilient areas of the state remain locked in amber by zoning, forcing growth out onto a periphery that’s increasingly imperiled by climate change. If you want to know what climate denial looks like, just look to West Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Sunset District, where every apartment building blocked by NIMBYs means another subdivision built in the path of future fires. 

Few can doubt that California needs to build many millions of new homes to pull itself out of this housing crisis. But if we continue to only allow housing to be built in all the wrong places, the California Dream could soon go up in smoke.

Nolan Gray is the research director for California YIMBY and the author of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.

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