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.