Monthly Archives: August 2017

Zoning Capacity Needs to Be Much, Much Higher

If you follow on Twitter, you’ve probably seen the graph below showing how much building capacity was lost due to downzoning in Los Angeles. The number of people that could be reasonably accommodated was reduced by more than half.


When pro-housing advocates talk about the need to upzone, one common response from opponents of development is that there already are underutilized parcels that have fewer housing units than permitted by zoning. Why, they ask, is upzoning needed if developers aren’t even using existing parcels to their full potential.

It’s not hard to understand why upzoning is still necessary on a technical level. The microeconomic decisions of many actors will mean that a city is always below its zoned housing capacity. In many instances, owners are satisfied with the buildings already on their property, and don’t want to rebuild. In many other instances, there may be available zoning capacity, but not enough to make it profitable to reconstruct. For example, a lot might have 4 units on it and be zoned for up to 5 units. That property will not be redeveloped until prices get extremely high. Similarly, LA has many one-story retail buildings on C2 commercial zones, that could be redeveloped to R4 density (1 unit per 400 SF lot area) but with a max FAR of 1.5. It’s not worth it to demolish a rent-paying commercial structure for so meager a residential FAR.

Applying this logic to other common human necessities reveals on a much more fundamental level how weak the arguments against upzoning due to available capacity are.

For example, when you go to the supermarket looking for bananas, you don’t expect to be told that they have plenty of canned soup and won’t be ordering any more food until those are used up. People like to cook and eat many different things, and reasonably expect the supermarket to offer a wide variety of things to buy. How dull a culinary world would it be if we produced just enough food for people to survive and nothing more? If a farmer goes to plant kale, we don’t stop them from doing it because we’ve already got plenty of soybeans.

When you go to buy clothes, you don’t expect the retailer to have only one outfit, and told to take it or leave it. People like to wear lots of different kinds of clothes. How dull would the world be if everyone had to wear the same thing? Or consider a bookstore. Would you be satisfied if you went to Amazon and they only had 100 books, and weren’t planning to order any more until those were gone?

Likewise, people need a huge variety of buildings in cities to thrive. Providing people with more options creates greater opportunity for them to live their lives and pursue their dreams. A city that is zoned to allow barely enough housing is going to forfeit an enormous amount of human spirit and dynamism, in addition to burdening many of its residents with high housing costs. Zoning needs to allow people the flexibility to grow and try new ideas. In SoCal that means we need our zoning capacity to be much higher than it is today.


Points Based Immigration: Un-American

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Republican Senators Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) have introduced a bill called the “RAISE Act” which would severely curtail legal immigration, reducing green cards from over 1,000,000 to about 500,000, the yearly number of family-sponsored immigrants to 88,000, and the yearly number of refugees to 50,000. It would create a points-based immigration system allowing 140,000 immigrants per year, where immigrants would be chosen on a points system, with younger, wealthier, more educated people scoring a higher number of points. The proposal was immediately backed by Donald Trump and ghoulish policy adviser Stephen Miller. Unlike health care or infrastructure, racism seems to be one policy area that the president actually cares about, having appointed regretfully competent people to run the Department of Justice and ICE, and willing to spend political capital to achieve specific outcomes.

As such, it is important to push back against this proposal as firmly and relentlessly as possible. The policy proposal for a points-based system has received far more respect than it deserves, with people debating the effectiveness and suitability of the specific standards, e.g. should a foreign professional degree count for less than a US professional degree, or should an 18 year old with $1.5 million dollars receive the same number of points as a 50 year old with $1.8 million? This is like phrenologists debating the relative importance of an enlarged constructiveness organ compared to an underdeveloped benevolence organ.

Set aside the absurdity of a points-based system to enter America being proposed by a set of people would almost surely fail to qualify under the proposed system. Set aside the hypocrisy of such restrictive immigration policy being proposed by people whose ancestors came to America when the federal government’s requirements were having about $600 and not being insane or carrying disease – or, as incredible as it may sound today, when the federal government was not involved in immigration at all. Never mind that it lays waste to the obvious lie that Trump’s base was concerned about illegal immigration. Forget that the points-based immigration quota is so low that it would have been exceeded by peak Ellis Island immigration alone in about 28 days.

Points-based immigration is un-American. End of question.

The promise offered by America when all those boats steamed into New York Harbor was the opposite of a points-based system. Any system that requires hard measurement of people’s value as human beings is wrong. Any such system is going to inherently privilege people who are already privileged: the people who already had the opportunity to learn English, obtain education, amass wealth, & gain social stature in their home country. Any such system is going to punish people who were unfairly discriminated against, who were already scored as unwanted rejects with nothing to offer.

To all of that, America said screw you, and gave millions of people a chance at a better life. America didn’t just theorize that immigration was good and that those people would help build a stronger, more innovative country, we proved it.

The darker side of America has always been there too, from the Know Nothings in the 1850s to the Immigration Act of 1924, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Stephen Miller’s dull gaze and empty head. If we believe in America at its best, we need to push back against the RAISE Act on principle. The RAISE Act would deny America to the people who need it the most. Engaging in discussion on the specifics only legitimizes a concept that should have no place in American policy to being with.

Are Suburbs Triumphant?

In a recent post, I speculated that suburban development in the IE might be on the rebound after a decade of slow housing construction. Other cities, especially in the Sunbelt & Texas, have reached their pre-crisis housing output.

After the financial crisis, there was a moment when urban counties were growing faster than suburbs, and pop wisdom held that suburbs were dead and people were returning to cities. This was always suspect, because severe zoning restrictions were clearly going to make it difficult for many people to do so. Now, though, with suburban construction picking up and surveys consistently showing that most people want to own their own single-family home, it feels like the pendulum of pop wisdom has swung too far in the direction of suburban triumphalism. So let’s look at a few ways that post-crisis suburbanization is different than the pattern that had held since World War 2.

Suburbs Are Back, But They’re Not the Same

Like an athlete returning to play after a serious injury, the suburbs don’t have the same range of skills they once did.

One of the most obvious ways suburban development is different is a lack of golf course development. When I worked in highway design, we did a fair amount of land development work for new residential projects, including communities centered around golf courses. Nobody is building golf course development now; the number of courses in the US has been slowly declining. The decline has created a desire for infill development in some places; for example, Rancho Cucamonga is allowing housing to be constructed on a former course.

Another obvious difference is the lack of new commercial construction. Whether it’s due to oversupply from before the crash or the increasing impact of online retail, as of a few years ago, no new enclosed malls had been built since before the financial crisis. (I tried to find updated info but couldn’t.) Mall vacancy was very slow decline after the recession and has actually ticked up the last couple months. Since many suburbs depend on sales and property taxes generated by commercial development, the lack of growth in retail space strains municipal budgets.

Meanwhile, while some cities have recovered, national housing production remains at historically low levels, including for single-family housing. Some fast growing cities, like Atlanta and Phoenix, are still not producing as much housing as they once were, despite increasing prices. As Calculated Risk frequently notes, suburban builders are not producing entry-level homes they way they once did.

The Desire for Cities is Real

While the increase in desire to live in cities, or at least walkable neighborhoods and older suburbs close to cities, may have been overstated, it is nevertheless very real. On a recent walking tour of neighborhoods in East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz, someone mentioned this to me as one of the primary differences between now and the 1980s, and I think they’re right.

In the past, except for a few enclaves like Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Hancock Park, people with the means to move to new development in the suburbs generally did so. For whatever reason, some people with money have decided they want to live closer to the city, and they are outbidding lower income people. Jed Kolko did an analysis in 2016 and found that people aren’t urbanizing, but money is. The result is that the people moving to new suburbs aren’t the wealthier people, at the same time that suburbs are not producing entry-level housing and are being squeezed by lackluster commercial growth.

We Still Need to Upzone Cities

A lot of new housing is going to be produced in suburbs, and we need to look at the reasons why it’s not as affordable as it once was. But that still won’t solve the problems in cities outlined above. People want to live closer to cities, and if we don’t build enough housing, somebody will lose out.