Yorba Linda is the first of Orange County’s 34 cities to win state approval of its new housing plan, providing a blueprint for the construction of 2,415 new homes needed for the remainder of the decade.

In an April 8 letter to the city, the state Housing and Community Development Department said it’s “pleased to find the adopted housing element in full compliance with state housing element law.”

The finding is based on “a robust rezone (plan) to facilitate housing, the commitment to remove certain constraints (to homebuilding), and programs to affirmatively further fair housing,” the letter said.

State law requires cities in the six-county Southern California Association of Governments region to revise the “housing element” of their general plans every eight years to address shelter needs at all income levels. The current planning period runs from October 2021 through October 2029.

The state determined earlier that Southern California needs to plan for 1.34 million new homes by the end of 2029. Yorba Linda’s share of that target is 2,415 homes, divided among units that are affordable for very low-, low-, moderate- and above-moderate-income households.

Of those homes, at least 1,216 must be affordable to low-income residents, or those earning less than 80% of Orange County’s median income. Another 457 units must be affordable to moderate-income residents, or those earning from 20% below to 20% above the median income. And the city needs at least 742 market-rate homes.

If all those homes get built, it will boost Yorba Linda’s housing stock by 10%.

The city’s 144-page plan includes the rezoning of 27 sites, city Planning Manager Nate Farnsworth said. It also includes adding incentives for affordable housing development and zoning to allow residential development on religious sites.

And it commits the city to adopt measures to streamline approval of “accessory dwelling units,” also known as granny flats or mother-in-law units.

The big challenge ahead is the rezoning of land to allow all the needed construction, a process that requires public hearings and environmental reviews.

Under a state law adopted in September, Southern California cities failing to get their housing plans adopted by Feb. 11 only have until next Oct. 15, instead of three years, to rezone all the needed parcels.

But under Yorba Linda’s Measure B, citizens must approve those rezonings in a citywide election before they can take effect. The soonest such an election can take place will be Nov. 8, Farnsworth said.

That means Yorba Linda technically will be out of compliance with the state housing element law. But Farnsworth believes the state housing department will have discretion not to find the city out of compliance, so long as the ballot initiative passes in November.

“For us, the biggest hurdle is we have this ballot initiative,” Farnsworth said. “We think it’s doable.”

The housing plan revision is part of the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, process.

During the past several decades, the RHNA process tended to be a paper exercise, housing advocates say, with cities planning for housing, but without the homes actually getting built.

For example, just 20 out of 548 cities and counties in the state were on track to meet their 2013-2021 housing goals at all income levels as of 2020, a Southern California News Group investigation found. At least 168 local jurisdictions failed to issue any building permits for low-income housing since 2013.

The state has a housing shortage of more than 3 million homes, according to some estimates. As a result, rents, home prices and homelessness have soared out of control, contributing to a recent population drop as younger, lower-income families flee the state in search of affordable housing.

State lawmakers began attacking the housing crisis in 2017 with a host of new laws aimed at making the RHNA process more effective. One 2017 measure requires cities and counties to provide evidence there’s a realistic chance homes on their site inventories will get built.

That law has been cited as a major reason why most Southern California cities and counties still don’t have a state-approved housing plan. Just eight of Southern California’s 197 cities and counties met the deadline to have an approved housing element by Feb. 11, state officials said.