In 25 years, housing will look different in Inland Empire

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Homes will be more dense, more vertical and more energy efficient – but some fear there won’t be enough homes for all

Contributing writer | David Downey

The single-family house that symbolizes life in the Inland Empire will be alive and well 25 years from now. Anthony Orlando, a Cal Poly Pomona associate professor of finance, real estate and law, said he believes most people will still live in such homes. But, in many cases, the standalone dwelling of the future won’t resemble the house with the big backyard common today in Riverside County, San Bernardino County and eastern Los Angeles County. “Housing is evolving and there will be surprises,” said developer Randall Lewis, executive vice president of Upland-based Lewis Management Corp. Look for houses to be more dense, more vertical, more energy efficient – many will produce as much electricity as they consume – and located near stores, Lewis said. Look also for a higher proportion of housing to be apartments, condominiums and townhomes – some of which will be hard to tell apart from the new single-family home. “The lines between multifamily and single family will blur,” Lewis said.

Inland project offers peek at future

An example of what the future may look like is the Tempo neighborhood in The Resort development in Rancho Cucamonga. Houses are spaced so close together – about 15 to the acre – that they appear to be townhomes, Lewis said. The homes have only thin strips of yards, he said, though they are large enough for a barbecue grill and “a place to sit.” Tempo is one of five different housing products in The Resort that range from single-family homes to condominiums and have 12 to 24 homes per acre, Lewis wrote in an email. The demand for a variety of housing styles will be driven by a growing diversity of households. In the past, most people who shopped for Inland Empire houses were families with children, Lewis said. Large families tended to seek five-bedroom homes while smaller ones were buying three-bedroom houses. Now, experts said, alongside families are couples who don’t have children, young professionals who want to walk to stores and entertainment, multigenerational households and retirees looking to downsize.

Will there be a housing shortage?

One of the biggest concerns today is that there’s not enough housing to go around. Daniel MacDonald, associate professor and chair of the Economics Department at Cal State San Bernardino, isn’t optimistic that will change. “Even though the Inland Empire is a very fast-growing metropolitan area … we are approving less permits (for new houses) today than we did back in the year 2000,” he said. That doesn’t bode well for closing the gap. Multifamily housing is accounting for a growing share of the new homes, MacDonald said. Still, single-family houses comprised 77% of housing approved in 2021, down some – but not substantially – from 90% at the turn of the century, he said. “Developers are finding it very difficult to build in this kind of political environment,” MacDonald said. “So we are just not building enough to satisfy the demand. That’s why prices go up.” That has implications for the region’s future attractiveness. For years, more people have been leaving California than have been moving to the Golden State, with a main reason being the cost of housing, MacDonald said. Lower-income workers have been leaving for some time, he said. Higher-income workers are starting to do the same. “The question is whether the Inland Empire is bucking that trend, or is just late to the party,” he said. The answer may be the latter, MacDonald said.

Prices may hit younger residents

The Inland Empire long has been a relief valve for families escaping high prices in Orange County, San Diego and the Los Angeles area. That’s reflected in recent migration patterns. MacDonald said 17,000 more people ages 25 and older moved into Riverside and San Bernardino counties than moved out of the area in 2021 – most of them from coastal counties. What’s concerning, he said, is that the 2021 number was down sharply from the region’s net in-migration total of 31,000 for 2016. Although some state projections show the region’s population growing by 20% in the next 25 years, MacDonald said that, if regional leaders don’t work to ease the housing crunch – and slow surging home values – within 10 years, the Inland Empire may begin to lose more 25-and-older people than it gains from move-ins. Matthew Taylor, a principal planner for the city of Riverside, said in an email that high costs and stiff competition for housing will prompt younger residents to make tough choices, such as “renting for longer, opting for smaller units in denser communities, moving back in with Mom and Dad, or leaving the area altogether.” Orlando, the Cal Poly Pomona professor, said easing the shortage will be difficult in the face of community opposition to dense housing. What’s needed, Orlando said, is for politicians, influential employers, workers and non-real-estate leaders in the business community to recognize the need for housing and advocate for it. “I haven’t seen that happen yet at the scale that it needs to happen,” he said. There is reason for optimism, though, Orlando said. Citing the construction of homes in downtown areas, he called that trend something upon which the region can build.

Low-income people may face choices

Meanwhile, the shortage has created major problems. “Either people have to share or they don’t get housing,” Orlando said. “So we have overcrowding and homelessness growing side by side.” Juanita Kodera, senior fair housing counselor for the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, said the shortage is particularly acute in price ranges that lower-income families can afford. Consequently, multiple generations of families are squeezing into homes that weren’t meant to accommodate many people, Kodera said. Some have jobs but sleep in cars because they don’t earn enough to pay rent, she said. Some opt for gym memberships so they can shower and dress for work. California lawmakers have tried to confront the shortage through legislation, including passing a law that makes it easier for homeowners to build second homes – often referred to as granny flats – on their lots. Those efforts will help, Kodera said, but more must be done to boost the supply, which she said “needs to grow exponentially.” The housing council is based in downtown Riverside at the new Mission Heritage Plaza, which also is home to the Civil Rights Institute of Inland Southern California and 72 apartments for lower-income families.

Housing is moving to downtowns

In recent years, the downtown area of the Inland Empire’s largest city has sprouted several multifamily complexes. In January, another such complex – the seven-story high rise called the Mark – is set to open next to the landmark Mission Inn Hotel & Spa. Michelle Rubin, president of Regional Properties, which built the Mark, said no one would have dared to build apartments there 25 years ago. Now there is a strong demand for multifamily housing as millennials and other young people seek such places. “They want to live in the city,” Rubin said. Responding to that desire, developers have built 500 housing units in downtown Riverside in the past five years, Taylor, the principal planner, said in an email. The total includes the Mark’s 165 units, 125 homes at Centerpointe, 89 apartments at Imperial Hardware Lofts and the 72 at Mission Heritage Plaza, Taylor wrote. Urban-living-type projects are beginning to rise in other places, too, Rubin said. “They’re like micro downtowns,” she said. “You have retail around them.” One such place could emerge at Riverside’s former Sears store, which for decades was a retail giant and now sits empty. A team of developers is crafting a plan to remake the Arlington Avenue site. Preliminary ideas call for tearing down the building and constructing almost 400 townhomes and apartments, along with shops, a grocery store and a dog park. Potential approval is a few years off as environmental studies must be completed first. Other projects that could deliver a mix of housing and retail development are in the works. In Redlands, plans to transform the former Redlands Mall into 700 apartments and condominiums, with restaurants and shops, were approved in May. In San Bernardino, city leaders are preparing to demolish the shuttered Carousel Mall. The San Bernardino City Council voted in August to hire a Dallas-based real estate firm to create a vision for breathing new life into the 43-acre site. Though the firm later backed out, redevelopment of the shuttered mall remains a high priority for the city.

Future can be hard to predict

Exactly what mix of single-family and multifamily housing the region will see in the future remains to be seen, experts said. Jennifer Lilley, Riverside’s community and economic development director, said that’s hard to predict following the coronavirus pandemic. The trend toward people working remotely made the single-family house more attractive, Lilley said. “COVID kind of took the crystal ball out of our hands a little bit,” she said. In any event, Lilley said, multifamily housing will account for an increasing share of homes built in Riverside – and, experts said, across the region. Today, 67% of Riverside’s homes are single-family houses, Taylor said. The Sears redevelopment in many ways represents “the future of housing in Riverside and Southern California,” Taylor wrote. Riverside’s plan that sets the stage for more than 20,000 homes to be built by 2029 relies heavily on placing housing in underused and abandoned commercial areas, he said. Expect that approach to be replicated across the region. In July, a new state law will take effect that requires cities to allow homes in commercial and office zones. Sara Tellez, who manages the fair housing initiative program for the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, predicted that dense, high-rise, housing will become more common in part because of the shrinking amount of vacant land available for building. “The easy sites have been taken,” Lewis, the developer, said. “You’re going to see the repurposing of nonresidential properties. That is already happening now. But if you look 25 years from now, that is going to happen on a larger scale.” The region’s vast inventory of existing houses will play a role, too, Lewis said. Many were built during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, he said, and will be well past their prime in 2048. Some will be torn down and replaced. Others will be remodeled, Lewis said. “Adaptation will be a huge theme 25 years from now because we will have an aging housing stock,” he said.

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