Tag Archives: Affordable housing

What Do Anti-Market Rate Housing Advocates Want?

“If you cannot afford to live here and your kids can’t have decent housing, you should look at where you can afford.” So said Jim Righeimer, Mayor Pro Tem of Costa Mesa. While a housing construction moratorium failed in LA, Costa Mesa passed one of the most restrictive development measures in the state last November – any project that would result in 40 or more dwelling units being built within half a mile of each other within 8 years must be approved by a public vote.

This blog obviously doesn’t agree with that point of view, holding that California cities ought to allow a lot more construction of all types of housing. But it is a point of view that is at least consistent with the actual outcomes achieved by its policies. The cost of housing is driven up policies that heavily restrict housing production, and people are left to fend for themselves in the distorted market that results. If you can’t afford Costa Mesa, you go to Corona; if you can’t afford Corona, you go to Beaumont; and if you can’t afford Beaumont, you go to Buckeye. The answer of people who like this arrangement to the shortage of affordable units and high rent burdens is that they really don’t care.

If, on the other hand, you claim that you do care about the shortage of affordable units and high rent burdens, you ought to come up with a set of policies that can achieve the outcome you want. As I see it, there’s three coherent packages of housing policy:

  • You can be a NIMBY and be indifferent to the pain caused by housing costs. This is the position outlined above.
  • You can favor more market rate construction to meet the housing needs of most people, plus dedicated more dedicated affordable units, housing subsidies, and other policies to meet the needs of low-income people. This is the position of most YIMBY groups in California, despite many straw man claims otherwise.
  • You can favor a massive government public housing construction program, where the government provides many or even most people’s housing. This is the position of some of the more radical YIMBYs.

What you can’t do is claim to care about affordability but offer no plan to build housing in the quantity needed – and recall that for LA County alone, we are estimated to be 1,000,000 housing units short since 1980. Changing housing policy without addressing the supply problem is like playing musical chairs. If you have more people than chairs, it doesn’t matter how much you change the rules, someone is not going to get a chair. Someone is going to have to move to Buckeye.

This is where YIMBYs and pro-housing types get frustrated with the current state of housing policy advocacy in California. Arguments to allow a lot more market rate construction get pushed back with claims that the market will never solve the problem. But that only leaves the third option, and it doesn’t seem like any anti-market rate advocates are pushing for construction of public housing on the scale that’s needed. The only ones actually arguing for this are the more radical YIMBYs.

It’s very strange to argue that market rate construction won’t solve the housing shortage, but then pin your hopes on policies like inclusionary zoning and higher below-market-rate (BMR) percentages, which could only hope to have a major impact on affordability if an enormous amount of market rate development to subsidize them is built. It’s very strange to argue that housing is a right, but then, rather than tax the public at large like we do for things like schools and fire departments and food stamps, insist that new market rate development alone bear the burden of ensuring that right.

Many progressives have an instinctual dislike for “developers” as a concept, since they are generally presumed to be well-off businesspeople running big enterprises, looking to get even richer. (Never mind that this is an unfair stereotype that ignores many small-time developers.)

However, politics is the art of the possible, and it seems to me that many people in California need to decide what exactly it is that we want. If we’re going to solve California’s housing crisis, and we’re not going to argue for the state to build 500,000 units in LA County, we need to work with the development community to figure out policies that can work for everyone. And to be honest, I don’t even think the policies are that hard, it’s the politics of getting a pretty diverse set of groups to work together.

But to do it, we have to decide we actually want to solve the problem.

Why is New Housing in California So Expensive?

You probably had an answer to that before you even finished reading the question. But I’m willing to bet it’s not the whole answer. There are a lot of things that go into building housing, and California is a big place, so different things might matter more in different places.

If you’re reading this blog, odds are the first thing that came to your mind is zoning. In the already-dense built-up parts of LA and OC, zoning is indeed the most likely culprit, since it is simply illegal to build more housing on most of the land. But go further east, and there’s lots of land zoned for residential development, yet prices are still much higher than comparable locations in other states. Looking at this could help shed light on factors other than zoning.

The Inland Empire Should be as Affordable as Phoenix

Here’s a look at the cheapest offerings in the Inland Empire and in Phoenix from DR Horton, one of the biggest homebuilders in the US, and of the big builders operating in California, probably the most focused on trying to build entry-level homes.

DRH-IEDRH-PHX

The cheapest offering in Phoenix is $136k; in the IE, $264k, making the cheapest new construction in the IE almost twice as costly as Phoenix. That’s quite a difference. In terms of amenities, the IE does better than Phoenix – driveable to SoCal’s beaches, close to a bigger urban center in LA, closer mountains, better climate – but not enough to justify that margin. And it terms of wages, Phoenix passed the IE after the Great Recession and has seen substantial wage growth in the last two years, while IE wages have been stagnant. So not only are IE residents getting hit with higher housing costs; their wages aren’t keeping up. Small wonder that the Phoenix MSA was the fastest growing region of the country last year, adding 82,000 people.

fred-earnings

Taking all of DR Horton’s projects in the IE and in Phoenix, plus projects from Pardee Homes (another entry level builder) in Riverside County to fill things out a little, here’s the cheapest house offered in each subdivision, plotted against distance from the bedroom community to the central city.

price

As we’d expect, housing gets cheaper the further we get from the central city. You might look at this and think that the IE could hit Phoenix levels of affordability another 20 miles out, but cheap housing that far from the center city wouldn’t really do much to help. People will commute from Buckeye to Phoenix; no one is commuting from Barstow to LA. (Note: the low-cost developments close to Phoenix are all in South Phoenix, a historically black and Latino neighborhood that faced all the systematic discrimination and disinvestment you’d expect.)

Replotting the data looking at the cheapest house offered in each subdivision against the size of the house is very revealing.

pricesize

The smallest new houses in the IE are in the neighborhood of 1,600 SF (though I know KB Home has a project at 1,430 SF), while in Phoenix many project are around 1,250 SF and one is as low as 1,100 SF. This is counterintuitive to housing prices being higher and wages being lower in the IE; we’d expect to see smaller houses in the IE than in Phoenix. The incremental cost per square foot is not substantially different between the two regions, but IE housing developments appear to face structural issues that add about $100k to the cost of a house. The same issues are probably responsible for making small houses infeasible in the IE.

Now looking at the largest house offered in each subdivision, let’s plot the cost per square foot versus distance from the city center.

priceSF

While there will always be variability between municipalities, the overall trend is what you’d expect – cost per square foot declines as you move further from the city. This is a proxy for how much people value being able to live closer to the center.

Finally, let’s look at cost per square foot versus house size.

sizeSF

The cheapest new construction in the IE is around $120/SF (though KB Home has a project in Victorville that hits $100/SF) while in Phoenix many projects are under $100/SF. Note that cost per square foot doesn’t seem very impacted by house size; this is because we’re looking across the whole region. Within a given subdivision, house prices per square foot are always lower for larger houses.

Why is IE Housing So Expensive?

I think this should prompt a deeper look at what goes into the cost of building housing in California. Starting from the bottom up, the inputs to housing are:

  • Land – the physical place where house is built
  • Zoning – rules that specify how many houses you can build on a piece of land
  • General Impact Fees – fees paid to a municipality or service district by all development, such as parks fees & school fees
  • Special District Fees – fees paid by development within a special district, commonly known as Mello-Roos fees in California
  • Materials – the physical products that make up a house, like wood and drywall
  • Building Code – the regulatory requirements that specify the details and quality of construction
  • Labor – the people who assemble the raw materials into a house
  • Soft Costs – the architects, engineers, planners, code consultants, & other professionals whose services are needed to design & permit the project
  • Carrying Costs – the interest on loans, the taxes on property, & other similar costs paid in the time between the purchase of the land & sale of the house

Land

The most basic input to housing is having a place to build. Unlike in LA/OC, there’s still a lot of greenfield land in the IE that is zoned for residential development or has approved master plans. High housing costs should bring that land to market to be developed.

Via @FactChecker23, we have this set of price data for 46 metro areas, including home (total), structure, and land costs. Here are plots of total home cost and land cost for the IE and Phoenix.

IE-PHXhomeIE-PHXland

Here is a plot of the difference between IE and Phoenix home prices, with a breakdown of the delta into structure costs and land costs.

IE-PHXdeltas

With the exception of a strange jump in 2011 (that almost suggests a change in methodology of the underlying component data), the structure delta is remarkably stable throughout the housing bubble, Great Recession, and recovery. $20k to $30k of the price difference between the IE and Phoenix is in the physical structure itself. The large swings are driven entirely by land, with IE land prices rising higher than Phoenix during the bubble and recovery, and crashing to par during the recession.

This pattern suggests a structural issue with land availability. This could be due to second-order factors like CEQA, though as noted above there are many greenfield sites where master plans are already approved. However, another possibility is that in California, the inefficient property tax structure resulting from Prop 13 decreases the penalty for land speculation, because taxes do not keep pace with land values. In Arizona, property assessments increase with the value of the property and the increases are not capped like they are through Prop 13. Another possibility is that ownership of developable land in the IE is more concentrated, making collusion to drive up prices easier.

Zoning

Zoning drives up the cost of housing by limiting the number of houses that the cost of land can be spread across. A detailed analysis of density and zoned capacity in the IE and Phoenix is well beyond the scope of this blog. However, as an example, consider the general plan of Buckeye, a growing suburb west of Phoenix with very affordable housing. Much of the city is zoned for 3-6 dwelling units per acre (du/ac), which is typical of “medium density” zoning found in many IE master plans.

General Impact Fees

General development impact fees are fees imposed by cities on new development that are intended to pay for the costs of providing public services to the new development. Again, a comprehensive review of general impact fees is beyond the scope of this blog.

However, like with land costs, the long shadow of Prop 13 means that basic structure of taxation and municipal finance in California lends itself to high development impact fees. Unable to reassess properties to true market value or increase the tax rate, and limited in their ability to assess fees by subsequent propositions, California cities increasingly rely on development fees to plug holes in municipal budgets. Young cities in the Inland Empire, such as Jurupa Valley and Menifee, as well as other inland cities that have annexed land in recent years, face additional budget shortfalls as a result of faulty city finance legislation passed by the state during the financial crisis. The convoluted system of state funding to municipalities is itself a legacy of Prop 13.

To take some example, the city I live in, Glendale, charges a fee of $18,751 per multi-family unit (page 115 of 146) and $21,828 per single-family unit for parks alone. That fee could easily be expected to add $100-$150/month to baseline rents. In the Inland Empire, cash strapped cities have driven total impact fees up as high as $65,000 per unit in Riverside County and $75,000 per unit in San Bernardino County – around 25% of the cost of some of the cheapest development.

Meanwhile, the city of Buckeye charges literally no parks fee on most new residential development. The sum of parks, library, streets, public safety, water, and wastewater fees ranges from about $10k in the lowest cost districts to $20k in the highest cost districts. Across Maricopa County in Surprise, the sum of fire, police, library, parks, general government, public works, water, and wastewater fees is similar, ranging from about $10k to $18k. Surprise charges a parks fee of $785 – less than 5% of what Glendale charges, despite Glendale being a major secondary central business district with a large commercial tax base and large sales tax generators.

Lastly, it should be noted that impact fees can be used outright as a way for NIMBYs to stop development, since higher fees will decrease construction.

Special District Fees

Special district fees, or community facilities districts, more commonly known as Mello-Roos fees in California, are additional property taxes assessed in special districts to fund improvements such as streets, water, drainage, schools, parks, and so on. Mello-Roos fees are assessed as parcel taxes, not based on real value, so the actual burden is much higher for lower value parcels. This encourages the development of larger, more expensive houses, because there is “more house” to spread the cost across. As far as I know, there’s no equivalent in Arizona.

Materials

The cost of materials fluctuates with both the supply of materials available and the demand for construction materials. While this could have national impacts, there is little reason to suspect the market for materials is so different between SoCal and Arizona that it would drive a regional difference in the cost of construction.

Building Code

Without doing much in the way of detailed investigation, we can say with some certainty that California’s building code has more stringent requirements. First, the seismic detailing required for safe construction in California should result in some increase in costs. Second, California has famously high standards for energy efficiency for new construction. It’s hard to say off-hand what the cost impact is, but these aren’t things we’d want to compromise on anyway.

Labor

California does appear to have higher construction labor costs than Arizona. Ideally, this would be a comparison between residential construction workers in the IE in Phoenix; however, data doesn’t seem to be available for residential construction, and I could only find California at the state level.

fred-constr

According to the NAHB, a single-family home generates 3 full-time jobs for a year. If IE labor costs were about $300/week higher than Phoenix, that would be almost $50,000 per house. However, builders should respond to higher labor costs by trying to use less labor, and higher-wage labor tends to be more efficient than low-wage labor. In addition, labor costs will scale with house size, so the impact of labor costs should be less on smaller houses.

This is a squishier thing to measure than land and impact fees, since there is no way to spread the cost of land out over more units than the zoning allows and no way to evade impact fees. Note that the NAHB’s estimate of average wages and salaries in building a single-family home is literally greater than the purchase price of the cheapest single-family construction in Phoenix. Finally, it should go without saying that driving down wages results in negative social outcomes in a way that decreasing the profits of land-owning rentiers  or reducing exorbitant impact fees does not.

Soft Costs

Soft costs – such as engineering, permitting consultants, architects, and so on – should vary more or less according to regulatory complexity, so if it is more difficult to permit new housing, higher soft costs would result.

Carrying Costs

Longer times between purchase of the land and sale of the home will result in higher carrying costs, both because of the additional interest that accrues over that time and the fact that longer lag times make projects riskier. An analysis of the impacts of this factor is well beyond the scope of this blog, but cities should do all they can to reduce the time frame and provide certainty in the permitting process.

Conclusion

There are many factors that drive the cost of building new housing. If California is serious about reducing the housing shortage in the state, it must look to and study regions that build new housing at lower costs, understand which factors are the largest cost drivers, and work to alleviate those factors that can be improved in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

S is for Snake

Long-time riders will not be surprised that this blog has a dim view of Measure S, the NIMBY land use initiative on the March 7th ballot. Measure S would put a minimum two-year moratorium on any new housing that requires a zone change or general plan amendment – in the case of the latter, even for projects that are 100% affordable. The reasons Measure S is bad have been well explained, so I won’t revisit them here.

However, the level of deception being used by the Yes On S campaign is atrocious. That mendacity deserves to be remembered on its own. And anybody who still finds themselves unsure how to vote on S should ask: why do the proponents of S feel the need to lie so profusely?

Set aside the fact that the vast majority of funding for Measure S – well over $4 million – comes from an AIDS non-profit organization. There is a clear pattern in the Yes on S campaign of lying about the intent of the initiative and lying about support for it.

It started innocuously enough, with the Yes on S campaign crowing about an endorsement from Leonardo DiCaprio. Eventually it was revealed that DiCaprio never endorsed S and the campaign walked back its claim, blaming it on a communications snafu.

However, about a week ago, many residents of Los Angeles found this flyer in their mail. It doesn’t come right out and say the mayor endorses S, but it sure implies that. Garcetti is strongly opposed to S. Oh, and the quote was not actually something Garcetti said. It was something they wrote, in a letter to him. NBD though, right?

sgarcetti

Apparently uncertain of their ability to pass Measure S on NIMBY power alone, the backers have also stooped to trying to capitalize on well-placed concerns about housing in low-income neighborhoods, where many people are rightfully worried about eviction and displacement.

saffordable

This is, to put it mildly, not true. Measure S will not encourage new construction of affordable housing, because Measure S does not contain any mechanism to do so. Measure S will not protect rent-stabilized housing, because Measure S says literally nothing about rent-stabilized housing. In fact, Measure S will probably destroy rent-stabilized housing, because Measure S is perfectly happy to allow rent-stabilized housing to be destroyed by projects that comply with the zoning.

sevictionnotice

Now we are entering rarefied space. Measure S does nothing at all about evictions. You know how many times eviction is mentioned in the text of Measure S? Zero.

shomelessvets

Hard to top the chutzpah of the eviction flyer, but they managed to do it. Measure S doesn’t do anything for rent-stabilized housing or affordable housing, let alone housing the homeless. The sheer audacity of claiming that a moratorium on zoning changes and general plan amendments would somehow lead to helping get 1,200 veterans off the streets… I think I’m gonna be sick.

The campaign materials produced by Measure S do not present the true intent of the initiative at all and in many cases are outright lies… or, dare we say it, alternative facts? If someone is going to such lengths to hide their true intentions, you can be sure they don’t have your best interests at heart. If you truly care about affordable housing, rent-stabilized housing, or helping the homeless, you should be very wary of alliances with self-funding egomaniacs. They’ll betray your trust as soon as they don’t need you anymore.

Parcel Taxes are Better Than Impact Fees

A short note on housing development impact fees. These fees are popular with California cities for a variety of civic improvements, like parks and affordable housing. They owe their popularity to two facts: one, thanks to Prop 13, cities have the ability to levy them more easily than property or sales taxes, and two, the public sees the tax as falling on Big Bad Developers™ and on people who don’t even live in the city yet.

Unfortunately, because they fall on such a small portion of the city’s land and on such a small number of housing units, impact fees are a poor way to fund civic improvements, and have undesirable externalities. On the first count, the fees will never generate very much money relative to the city’s budget and needs. On the second count, because the fees will be set relatively high compared to the value of the housing in an attempt to at least get some improvements out of them, they will drive up the cost of housing. In the case of affordable housing impact fees, the resulting increase in rents makes impact fees somewhat self-defeating as method of achieving the goal.
The unavoidable problem of impact fees is that unless we are developing a large greenfield master plan housing subdivision in a new suburb, they inevitably place a heavy burden on a small portion of the housing and land.

Consider trying to build 10,000 affordable housing units in LA County – a small number relative to the total number of housing units in the county, which is over 3.5 million. Even when development in the county was occurring at a relatively quick pace in the 1980s, at 75,000 new units per year, the cost per unit would be huge. At an affordable unit cost of $300,000, each of the 75,000 new units would be saddled an impact fee of $40,000; at 4% for 30 years, this is higher mortgage costs of about $200/month. There’s simply no way this fee can be assessed without depressing new housing construction.

On the other hand, if the fee is assessed on all 3.5 million housing units in LA County, the assessment will be about $850 per unit, or about $4/month for 30 years. This will have practically no impact on the cost of housing. Thus, it may even be possible to increase the affordable goal.

Lastly, consider a tax on assessed value, also known as a property tax. The current assessed value of LA County is roughly $1.264 trillion dollars. The tax to fund the affordable units would be about $1 per $100,000 of assessed value, reducing the burden on each unit even further.

Simply put, if we have worthwhile community goals, we should fund them in a way that’s fair and that works. Parcel and property taxes are not as popular, but they are much better, and we should fight to do things that way when we can.

Zoning Constraints & Housing Types

We all know zoning restricts housing supply in cities. However, the type of housing produced will be different for different kinds of zoning regulations. In this post, we’ll explore the impact of three common kinds of zoning regulations: density controls (number of units), height and setback requirements, and floor area ratio (FAR maximums). As we’ll see, while variety of housing is often a stated goal of planning, zoning regulations and market conditions often work to the contrary. Height and setbacks work in the same way as FAR, with one always being more constraining than the other for a given lot.

Method of Analysis

To simplify things, we’ll look at the impact of these three types of regulations on a 50’x150’ (7,500 square foot) lot, which can be found all over LA and Glendale. For LA, we’ll consider the R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, R3, R4, and R5 zones as defined by the city of LA. For Glendale, we’ll consider the R1, R3050, R2250, R1650, R1250, and SFMU zones (which roughly correspond to R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, RD1.5, and R4). We will look at the number of units and size of building possible on a 50’x150’ lot in each zone, and see the impact on the type of housing produced.

In general, we will see that the lower density zones are constrained by permitted density, which tends to result in the production of only large, expensive housing units. High density zones are constrained by height & setbacks or FAR, which tends to result in the production of only one bedroom (1BR) and two bedroom (2BR) units, leading to the charge that apartment developers don’t build for families.

Los Angeles

The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in LA, assuming height district 1L, except for R5 where we assume height district 2, for reasons explained below.

zoning-la

Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. Assumed efficiency means the percentage of building floor area that’s actually usable for apartments. For single-family structures, it can be assumed to be 1.00. For apartments we assume 0.80 for a low-rise apartment in the R3 zone, and 0.70 for mid-rise apartments in the R4 and R5 zones. Efficiency for apartments is less than 1.00 because of space lost to hallways, elevators, common areas, trash rooms, and so on.

units-la

LA’s FAR is very generous for low density zones, so height & setbacks rather than FAR end up constraining maximum floor area for all zones except R4. If we had used height district 1L for R5, it would also be constrained by FAR instead of height & setbacks, and would only have an average unit size of 425 SF.

As a practical matter, in the R1, RD3, and RD2 zones, actual building size will be constrained by market conditions. There just isn’t that much demand for houses over about 3,500-4,000 SF. These zones are purely constrained by density, meaning that developers will max out the number of units possible and build the largest units they think the market will accept. Purple City once ran the numbers to show you why developers won’t put small houses on big lots.

The RD1.5 and R3 zones are more or less equally constrained by density and building height & setbacks. For R3, density has increased to the point that average unit sizes have been driven down to about 2,000 SF for a small lot subdivision of free-standing houses and about 1,600 SF for apartments, housing unit sizes that are in high demand. This is probably one reason the R3 zone is popular with small lot developers; the combination of permitted density and floor area doesn’t force the units to be smaller than people want, nor does it force much of the lot to remain as open space.

The R4 and R5 zones are constrained by floor area, whether in the form of maximum FAR or height & setback requirements. If the developer maxes out the number of units, they will only be able to get about 800-900 SF average unit size. This is why large apartment buildings in LA are almost all studios, 1BRs, and 2BRs. If you tried to make a decently-sized 3BR unit, say 1,400 SF, it would have to offset by two units of only 500 SF, or a reduction in total units.

Note that if a development is FAR constrained, parcel assembly doesn’t help with unit size at all, only with making it easier to configure parking ramps, elevators, and other common spaces. If a development is height & setback constrained, parcel assembly will help with unit size by eliminating setbacks between lots, until the point FAR constraints take over.

Glendale

The analysis is similar for Glendale, but maximum FAR in Glendale is much less, and setbacks and heights are more restrictive. The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in Glendale. Setbacks are averages because Glendale has step back requirements for second and third floors.

zoning-glendale-single

Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. I’m assuming 0.90 efficiency for townhouses.

units-glendale-single

Except for R1250, the multi-family residential zones in Glendale are in the sweet spot for townhouses (1,500 SF to 2,000 SF). The R1250 zone would work for small townhouses or 2BR apartments.

For lots over 90’ wide, Glendale allows additional density and another story of height in the R2250, R1650, and R1250 zones. There’s also a mixed-use zone, SFMU, that requires 100’ wide lots. Therefore, the analysis is modified if you assemble two lots. The SFMU zone has maximum height of 60’/4 stories and density 87 units/acre when abutting another multi-family zone, and 75’/6 stories and 100 units/acre when not, so results are presented for both cases. In practice, it is very rare for an SFMU zone to not abut another multi-family zone. The given story heights for SFMU assume half of the first floor is retail space and while max FAR is not specified it can be inferred from story height multiplied by 0.9, since 10% of the lot must be landscaped.

zoning-glendale-doubleunits-glendale-double

Because density is increased but FAR is not, the average unit size is actually driven down, despite being allowed to make the building one story taller. Of the few multi-lot townhouse projects I’ve followed in Glendale, many of them have not maxed out the density in these situations, electing to build fewer, but larger units. A motivating decision here is probably Glendale’s requirements for 2 subterranean parking spaces per unit, so density may actually be maxed out based on the number of parking spaces you can build in one underground level.

The SFMU zone ends up with larger average unit size than LA’s R4 and R5 zones, and sure enough, you do see some 3BRs in new developments in downtown Glendale. (While not actually in the SFMU zone, most of these buildings are in zones that allow 90-100 units/acre and up to 6 stories by right, so they’re a reasonable proxy.)

Encouraging Housing Diversity

Certainly, cities could increase the diversity of housing production by liberalizing zoning. Increasing allowable density and FAR, and eliminating minimum unit sizes, would allow different developers to try more different kinds of projects. After all, it was more liberal zoning regimes that produced neighborhoods that have a wide variety of housing types, like South Glendale.

Failing that, there are some other policies that might help. The primary concerns seem to be that apartment builders do not build enough family-sized apartments, while townhouse and small-lot builders do not build enough small homes. Some possibilities:

  • Give apartment developers free FAR for every bedroom beyond the second, for a certain percentage of units. Height and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • Add a density bonus for providing 3BR or 4BR apartments; for example, allow 0.20 additional units for every 3BR and 0.30 additional units for every 4BR, up to a maximum. FAR, height, and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • For townhouses and small-lot subdivisions, rezone outlying R1 areas as RD1.5 or R1250. Land in outlying areas is cheaper, reducing the need to max out FAR.
  • Add a density bonus for building small townhouses or small lots; for example, in the RD1.5 zone, allow 1000 SF lot area per unit up to certain percentage of units if they are smaller units.

 

A Short Introduction to Zoning in Los Angeles

Zoning that does not allow enough new housing construction is one of the biggest causes of the housing crisis in Los Angeles. So, it’s important to understand what zoning is, how it works, and how it’s been applied across LA. This post provides a summary of what zoning does, what the main zones in LA are, and where these zones are applied in the city. For more detailed information on zoning and parking requirements in LA, see the city’s summary of zoning and summary of parking requirements.

At its most basic, zoning is the idea that there can be different regulations on the built environment in different places within a jurisdiction.  As the name suggests, it divides places into different zones on a map. Depending on what zone a piece of land is located in, there are different rules for what types of structures and activities are allowed on the property. The major things controlled by zoning are:

  • Use type: controls what type of uses can be built on a lot. The main uses are residential (such as houses & apartments), commercial (such as stores & restaurants), and industrial (such as factories).
  • Density: mainly applied to residential uses. Controls how many houses & apartments can be built on the lot.
  • Floor-area ratio: controls how large a building can be, based on how large the property is. The floor-area ratio (FAR) is the size of the building divided by the size of the lot. For example, a 2,500 square foot house on a 5,000 square foot lot has an FAR of 0.50 (2,500 divided by 5,000).
  • Height: controls how tall a building can be. Height is usually controlled in terms of both the number of floors a building can have and its height in feet.
  • Setbacks: controls how much space must be left between the building and the property line. There are usually front setbacks, side setbacks, and rear setbacks. For example, the zoning might specify a minimum of 15 feet from the street to the front of the building, 5 feet from the property line to the sides of the building, and 20 feet from the property line to the back of the building.
  • Parking: controls how many parking spaces the developer must provide as part of the project. For residential uses, it is based on the number of houses or apartments. For commercial and industrial uses, it is based on the size of the building in square feet.

As you can see, zoning controls many aspects of development. Regulation of the type of uses is the least controversial, which is why people who oppose more housing often rely on absurd arguments about uses to make their point. Obviously no one here is arguing to allow new chemical refineries to be built next to schools and apartments. And obviously there is a large difference between that and allowing the construction of 12 apartments where the zoning currently only allows one house.

Zoning in Los Angeles evolved over the past 100 plus years, incorporating a series of societal goals and trends that may or may not make sense in 2016. LA was a pioneer in zoning for uses, adopting the nation’s first citywide zoning code (separating residential uses from other activities) in 1908. LA later borrowed zoning for ‘bulk’ (height, density, etc) from New York City and single family only zones from Berkeley. In 1930, as the region’s streetcar system was giving way to automobiles, LA began requiring some new building to provide off street parking spaces. LA’s current zoning code was last substantially updated in 1946 (though new zones and rules changes have been added in the subsequent 70 years). The City is currently revising the code through the re:code LA process.

Los Angeles began zoning before it had a formal process for urban planning. In 1974, LA adopted its first general plan, with land use and zoning set by 35 community plans. Under state law, zoning in LA is supposed to implement the general and community plans. The current zoning code has almost 2000 uses, everything from frog keeping to phonograph record blank manufacturing to wine bars.

In the city of Los Angeles, the main types of zones are R, C, and M, which correspond to residential, commercial, and industrial uses (the M is for manufacturing). Each zone is also assigned a height district which controls how large and how tall the building can be. For example, a zoning designation of R3-1 indicates that the lot is in the R3 zone and height district 1.

Residential Zones in LA

There are two main types of residential zones in Los Angeles: single-family zones and multi-family zones.

In single-family zones, you can only build one house on the lot, no matter how big the lot is. If you have a very large lot, you may be able to subdivide it into smaller pieces and build a house on each, so long as each lot meets the minimum lot size required in that zone. This is how the suburban areas of LA were developed, by taking large pieces of property, dividing them, and putting one house on each piece – this is why new housing developments are called subdivisions.

Single-family zoning is by far the most common zone of any kind in Los Angeles. The most common single-family zone is R1, which requires a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet (SF). Almost all of the single-family neighborhoods in LA that are not in the hills are zoned R1.

The other two common single-family zones in LA are RA (residential agriculture) and RE (residential estate). The RA zone requires 17,500 SF lots and allows limited agriculture – this is often called “horse property”. There are 5 RE zones, RE9, RE11, RE15, RE20, and RE40, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot size in thousands of square feet. For example, RE11 requires 11,000 SF minimum lots. All of the single-family zones in LA require a minimum of 2 covered parking spaces.

The map below shows generalized zoning in Los Angeles – click to embiggen. Anything in yellow is an R1 or an RE zone, and anything in light green is an RA zone.

LAzones-small

As you can see, the map is dominated by single-family zones, especially on the Westside, in the Valley, and in Northeast LA. The fight about development and displacement is being fought entirely outside these zones. There’s practically no rent stabilized housing anywhere in the yellow and light green areas. These neighborhoods have been let off the hook for their role in causing the housing crisis, despite the fact that they occupy most of the city’s land. If we are going to fix LA’s housing shortage, these neighborhoods should do their part.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the multi-family zones in LA, shown in orange on the map. These are the zones where you can build apartments. The main multi-family zones are RD, R3, R4, and R5, in order of increasing density. For these zones, density is controlled by requiring a minimum lot area per apartment. There are six levels of RD, which stands for restricted density, RD6, RD5, RD4, RD3, RD2, and RD1.5, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot area per apartment in thousands of square feet. For example, RD2 requires 2,000 SF of lot area per apartment. R3 requires 800 SF per apartment, R4 requires 400 SF, and R5 requires 200 SF.

The RD zones are the most common multi-family zones in LA, followed by R3. That’s mostly what you’re seeing in orange on the map. R4 is found mainly in places like Koreatown, Hollywood, North Hollywood, and Palms. R5 is found almost exclusively downtown and along Condo Canyon on Wilshire. All multi-family zones require parking at a rate of 1 space per studio, 1.5 spaces per 1 bedroom unit, and 2 spaces per 2+ bedroom unit.

To help visualize what these zones look like, RD zones usually look like very small apartment buildings or small lot subdivisions. R3 zones look like dingbats. R4 zones look like podiums. R5 allows for high-rises.

The lack of developable R3 and R4 zones in LA is one of the biggest roadblocks to constructing new apartments for ordinary people. Looking back at the map with that in mind, you can see why the large area of the city devoted to single-family zoning is such a problem.

Most of the residential zones in the city are in height districts 1, 1L, 1VL, and 1XL, where L stands for low, VL for very low, and XL for extra low (see a pattern?). For all zones, this means a maximum FAR of 3. For the single family zones, RD, and R3, these areas allow heights varying from 30’ in height district 1XL to 45’ in height district 1. R4 and R5 vary from 30’ in 1XL to unlimited in 1.

Height districts 2, 3, and 4 allow more height and more FAR, but not more density in terms of the number of apartments. These districts are generally restricted to places like Downtown and Hollywood.

For different places, different factors will limit the amount of development. For example, a 5,000 SF lot in an R4-1 zone theoretically has no limit on how tall the building can be. However, it’s only possible to put 12 apartments on this lot, and with a maximum FAR of 3.0. Therefore, the maximum size of the building would be 15,000 SF, equal to twelve 1,250 SF apartments. It would be impractical to build anything taller than about 5 stories on such a lot. This lot would be constrained by FAR and density, but not height.

On the other hand, a 6,000 SF lot in the RD2-1 zone can have an FAR of 3.0, which would allow up to 18,000 SF of building space. However, only 3 apartments would be allowed on such a lot, and you don’t see many 6,000 SF apartments. If the lot were 50’ wide by 120’ deep, the building footprint available after removing setbacks would be only about 3,000 SF. To get an 18,000 SF building, you’d have to build 6 stories tall, but the maximum height allowed is 45’ – only enough for about 4 stories. This lot is constrained by density and height, but not by FAR.

Commercial Zones in LA

Commercial zones are where businesses like restaurants, shops, and offices are located. They are shown in pink on the above map. As you can see, commercial zoning is located in strips along LA’s major boulevards, and in larger areas of business districts such as Downtown, Hollywood, Century City, and Playa Vista.

There are seven commercial zones in LA (CR, C1, C1.5, C2, C4, C5, and CM), but C2 is by far the most common. In addition to allowing commercial uses, C2 allows R4 uses by default, meaning that on LA’s commercial boulevards, you can build apartments at a density of 400 SF of lot area per apartment.

This was a great way to allow denser residential development along commercial boulevards, which are also often good transit corridors. However, in the 1980s, a ballot initiative known as Prop U cut the allowable FAR in the C2 zone from 3.0 to 1.5. Since many of these properties are already developed with commercial uses and FAR between 0.5 and 1.0, it is not profitable to build apartments in the C2 zone anymore. Thus, these lots are constrained by FAR.

The city has created two new zones, RAS3 and RAS4, that can be applied on commercial boulevards and help solve the problems caused by Prop U. These zones correspond to the same density allowed by R3 and R4, and have maximum FAR 3.0, but allow for mixed-use development by permitting commercial uses on the first floor. However, the RAS3 and RAS4 zones are very rare.

Manufacturing Zones in LA

Manufacturing zones are where industry is located. They are shown in grey on the above map, and are mainly located in the industrial district near downtown and along freight rail lines. As heavy industry has become less important to LA, these zones have become occupied by light industrial uses and commercial uses. The common M zones, M1 and M2, allow for C2 uses, meaning that offices and shops can be constructed there. However, residential uses are prohibited in M zones. For example, the Warner Center is in an M zone.

Occasionally, some people have expressed concern that allowing commercial development in M zones is going to erode the city’s industrial job base. This gets the analysis backwards; the existence of M zones does not create industrial jobs. Many M zone uses, such as warehouses, have low job density compared to commercial uses. In addition, it is worth remembering that because most of the city is zoned residential, commercial and industrial uses are competing for a very small portion of the city’s land. Allowing commercial development in more areas would decrease the development pressure on M zones.

More to Come

This post has hopefully provided an understandable overview of the main zoning regulations in LA. In a future post, we’ll look at the process that developers must go through if they want to get permission to do something differently. Since the housing crisis is a regional problem, future posts will also look at the zoning in other cities in the region.

Luxury Housing Isn’t the Problem

Indignation at luxury housing construction is one of the few things that unite NIMBYs and renters advocates concerned about gentrification and displacement. Since luxury construction is the only thing that pencils out in many places under existing zoning, this alliance is much more beneficial to NIMBYs, who get to thwart all new construction, than to renters advocates, whose meager gains from avoiding rent increases due to amenity effects are at least partially wiped out by rent increases due to the regional housing supply shortage. Politically, breaking the alliance between NIMBYs and renters advocates is prerequisite to taking any meaningful action on the housing crisis, as these are the two of the largest advocacy groups active in land use policy.

The trick that NIMBY con artists pull is to convince people that luxury construction is crowding out low-income & middle class construction – that every luxury unit built represents a missed opportunity to build a low-income or middle class unit. Of course, NIMBYs would oppose the construction of low-income & middle class housing or subsidized affordable units even more than they oppose luxury construction; that’s why it’s a trick.

For this story to be accurate, you’d have to believe that the economy is churning out housing as fast as possible. This is extremely unlikely. To see why, let’s look at a few graphs from the always excellent Calculated Risk and from FRED, the excellent data service of the St Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

First, here is the level of housing starts in the US.

01-StartsJune2016

Nine years after the bottom fell out of subprime lending, both total housing starts and single-family housing starts remain at levels that, since 1968, were previously only seen during recessions. When you adjust for population growth, the level of housing construction is even worse. The graph below shows the number of new housing starts per year for each person of population growth. For decades, we constructed 0.6 to 0.8 housing units for every additional person. That number dropped to almost 0.2 during the crash and has barely recovered to 0.4. (Note that this ignores demolitions, so it systematically overstates the amount of construction per person, but it’s fine for purposes of comparison.)

02-startsperperson

Now, it could be possible that developers have decided to spend the same amount of money, but build a smaller number of bigger, more luxurious units instead of a larger number of smaller, more affordable units. If this were the case, we’d expect to see housing investment remain at the same level as in the past, despite declining numbers of units.

This isn’t the case either. The graph below shows total real private investment in multi-family and single-family structures. Residential construction spending remains about a third below what it was before the housing boom of the 2000s started, and half of what it was at the peak.

03-totalinvestment

We can adjust this for the number of units by dividing total investment by the number of units constructed. The next graph shows total real private investment in residential structures divided by the number of units started. In real terms, investment per housing unit remains around $210,000-$230,000, similar to what it was in the 2000s.

04-investmentperstructure

So, developers are not substituting luxury construction for low-income and middle class construction. It’s just that the total volume of housing investment and construction remains low.

Labor shortages and material costs have been suggested as reasons that housing construction is not higher. However, construction employment is still well below what it was during the last boom.

05-constrjobs

In addition, employment per housing unit constructed is still above historical averages. Through the 1980s and 1990s, each housing unit built every year supported between 0.4 and 0.5 jobs. This level rose dramatically during the recession, as builders tried to keep their employees despite reduced volume, and has only declined to just over 0.6 jobs per unit. It seems that builders may not be using the labor they have to its full productivity.

06-constrjobsperunit

Prices for materials like framing lumber are up, but still below what they were during the last housing boom.

07-LumberJuly2016

Simply put, luxury construction is not behind the housing crisis. It is the low overall volume of construction. Indeed, even if developers switched to building the same number of middle class units, we shouldn’t expect any impact on the regional price level, because the housing shortage would persist. Rich people don’t disappear because you stopped an upscale tower. Luxury construction doesn’t induce rich people into existence.

What has happened is that job growth has been concentrated in large cities in this economic cycle, more so than in previous expansions. These are places like LA, where geography has made it impractical for new single-family construction on the edges of the region, like the IE, to relieve housing demand generated by job growth in the core, like the Westside.

So if we want to understand the housing crisis, we have to look at why the volume of construction in places like LA is so low – lower than at times in the past like the 1960s and 1980s, despite much stronger price support.

The biggest reason at the local level is zoning. Through downzonings that have restricted how many units can be built on a lot and costly regulatory requirements like parking minimums and impact fees, we have made it impossible to build things like dingbats and courtyard apartments, the types of new housing that were immediately affordable to the middle class and even many low-income residents. Filtering is real, but we should make it possible again to build new construction that’s affordable to low-income and middle class people.

Other policy changes besides zoning reform could work to serve this goal. For example, it’s easy to get a highly-leveraged federally guaranteed loan to buy a single-family house, but not to build a small apartment building or mixed-use project. This is true despite the fact that apartments in centrally located parts of the region are much safer investments than single-family houses on the fringe. If policy had not been oriented this way in the 2000s, perhaps the housing boom would have produced a large number of conveniently located apartments instead of empty subdivisions in the desert. As another example, the much-maligned investment of foreign money in US real estate could be guided towards building apartments rather than pied-a-terre purchases.

NIMBYs, of course, don’t want to see any of this. It’s easy to get mad about rich people buying big houses and luxury condos, and NIMBYs exploit that to their advantage in trying to stop all new construction. To solve the housing crisis, though, we need to realize that luxury construction is a distraction from what we need to do – figure out why housing construction is at such historically low levels, and changing policy to fix it.