Tag Archives: Los Angeles

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.

Advertisements

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.

Three Stories

On Sunday, I traveled back from the east coast, and met three people who experience LA in very different ways.

The first person barely made it onto our 6am flight, having received an epic send-off party from friends the night before. They were fresh out of school, and had just landed their first job at a marketing firm in El Segundo. Sunday they moved across the country; Monday was their first day of work. They got an apartment in El Segundo, and were excited to live near the beach and start their job, but were worried that not owning a car would make it harder to make friends. I offered a welcome and encouragement, but flying out of Boston, I couldn’t deny that not having a car in El Segundo would impact one’s social life.

The second person picked me up on the upper level of the LAX central terminal area – a driver for a popular ridesharing app. They had moved to LA in 1990 with a sibling to try to pursue a career in music. It’s a tough industry and the early 90s were a very tough economic time for LA, and they hadn’t found the success they’d hoped for. They now live in the far west of the Valley, having gotten a deal on rent from an in-law. The sibling had already departed for the Midwest; they were considering doing the same, where their money would go a lot further.

The third person is a friend of a friend, who stopped by to chat after lunch. They had moved to the Inland Empire a couple years ago to help take care of family. However, they live in a very family-oriented area (like you do in the IE) but do not have children, and miss the social and cultural opportunities of LA. The long drive from the IE makes it difficult to take advantage of the city, and the IE does not offer the same opportunities for one’s personal life as LA.

These are three people out of 18 million in LA/OC/IE, at different points in life, going in different directions. The land use planning system that we’ve constructed doesn’t work for them. There are millions of other stories out there with the same thread connecting them. There are probably plenty of people who’d want to live in El Segundo without a car and have lots of friends close by. There are many people that want to pursue artistic work that doesn’t pay well but enriches LA’s culture, who are needlessly punished by high housing costs. There are lots of people in the IE who don’t have families and would like to have a greater variety of social and cultural opportunities nearby.

Rigidly-defined land use planning forever locks neighborhoods, cities, and regions into the patterns chosen by a very small portion of people – usually very vocal opponents of any development other than single family homes. More importantly, it locks people into those patterns – it shapes and restricts their lives, their dreams & opportunities.

It’s long since time to dispel with the myth that everyone wants the same type of suburban family-oriented development, and that the desires of the people who do want that type of development should absolutely trump the hopes of everyone else. It’s also time to recognize that the social, economic, and cultural outcomes are what matter, not the built form of the city. SoCal is a big place; we have plenty of room to allow all kinds of development and for everyone to pursue their dreams.

Jane Jacobs at 100

May 4th was the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, whose works certainly need no introduction here. Rightly revered for successfully blocking Robert Moses’ plans to build freeways across Lower Manhattan and her works that helped redefined urban planning, Jacobs has become the patron saint of urbanism, however loosely defined that term may be. Her 100th birthday has prompted many retrospectives and celebrations of her work, with the Toronto Star calling her more relevant than ever.

Recently, though, some of her writing in The Death and Life of Great American Cities has come under fire. Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism sees the seeds of NIMBYism and gentrification in her opposition to dense construction being proposed in Greenwich Village and other parts of Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.

tweet

Jacobs’ writing is extensive, spanning over four decades, and even within Death and Life itself there are many different concepts that can be examined on their own merits rather than as a portion of the whole.

When I first read Death and Life many moons ago, I was living in Boston’s North End, which is cited frequently in the book as an example of a neighborhood that, by virtue of its built environment – mixed uses, small blocks, aged buildings, & density – had produced a successful urban community. Young and smug, I wallowed in the self-satisfaction of having chosen to live in the right kind of neighborhood and built environment.

Over time, though, it became impossible to pretend that I was living in Jane Jacobs’ North End. The neighborhood had already undergone tremendous change since 1961, when Death and Life was published. Gone were the noxious waterfront industries and the surface-running freight railroad, and the Central Artery’s days were numbered. Many Italians had long since decamped for the suburban dream on the North Shore. My North End was not that of former Boston City Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who described the eyes on the street of his childhood as “like having a thousand grandmothers” ready to tell your mom if you were up to no good. In fact, a nice feature for some of us living there was not having eyes watching all the time.

I had friends there and knew some business owners, but had nowhere near the extent of social interaction described in Death and Life. I certainly wasn’t assimilating anyone’s kids; even in those days, disciplining someone else’s children would get you long looks, if not a tongue lashing. Entire blocks that would have had ground-level retail in 1961 had been converted to exclusively residential use, their shopfronts replaced with small windows set high in the wall for the privacy of the occupants, who certainly didn’t want to be interacting with anyone on the sidewalk. Yet these streets had not been doomed; rather, they were more desirable because they were likely to be quiet at night. In years, I never really knew anyone else who lived in my building.

What’s going on? Like many questions on urban development, the answer can be found in Palms.

Palms is neighborhood that, according to Death and Life, should fail. The definitive dwelling type of Palms, the dingbat, built on the definitive zoning of Palms, R3, produces residential densities of about 50 dwelling units per net residential acre (du/ac). This is half the density that Death and Life speculates is the bare minimum for urban neighborhoods, but more than twice the posited maximum density for a suburb. Palms should be a “gray area” under the great blight of dullness. It’s not. Palms is one of LA’s most diverse neighborhoods, attracts new investment, and offers a wide variety of commercial amenities.

The neighborhood I live in now in Glendale is zoned for 19 du/ac, but has higher density in reality due to a significant amount of legacy development built when the zoning allowed more. It doesn’t suffer from the issues ascribed to middle densities either. I know more people in my building here than I did in the North End. This isn’t a reflection of the neighborhood’s design; it’s a reflection on people, myself included, being in different places in life.

Jacobs was badly needed in 1961, when American cities were being sacked on a scale that is almost unimaginable now. Nothing today comes close to the wholesale destruction of urban renewal and freeway construction; no one wields concentrated power of the magnitude Robert Moses had then. We should be thankful that the Lower Manhattan Expressway wasn’t built, and that the tide of public opinion turned against demolishing entire neighborhoods and towards respecting communities.

However, it seems to me that two things have gone wrong. One, we have underestimated the ability of people to form communities in different ways and flourish in different environments. Two, we have taken the lessons on urban aesthetics too close to heart.

On the first point, consider that people use and need cities in many different ways. For some, the ability to form a tight knit community is essential to survival because of the need for support; this is frequently the case with immigrant communities, like the North End when it was home to new Italian immigrants. Others are looking for social and cultural community; artists and writers are the stereotypical examples here. Still others might be trying to escape bad situations elsewhere, looking for new friendships and opportunity, but wanting or needing the anonymity that only a city can afford. People can successfully do these things in many different types of built environments. If you’re a recent Chinese immigrant to SoCal, you might end up in pretty suburban Monterey Park – not because of how it looks, but because that’s where the community you need is located.

On the second point, we have become focused on programming the details of new buildings – materials, interaction with the street, unit sizes, mandatory mixed use in some places, and mandatory single use in others. We obsess over design while much larger market forces are reshaping cities. We let our cities become cartoons of themselves – maintaining the same appearance while serving a smaller portion of the people who need them. It’s the urban answer to Disney’s Main Street USA – looks and feels like a real city neighborhood, if you can afford the price of admission.

This is not to say that Death and Life is irrelevant or dated. But for many cities, the problems that it discusses are. There are cities that are struggling the way New York was in 1961 – places like Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis – and they really do still face plans for extensive demolition of old neighborhoods, new roadways through the urban core, and urban renewal schemes. But no one is trying to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway anymore, and no one is trying to demolish the North End and replace it with another West End. People talk about the need for aged buildings as if Robert Moses were still lurking around the corner, as if places like LA weren’t largely comprised of old buildings. We have lots of old buildings, what we need now is some new ones. On my entire street in Glendale, you could probably count the buildings finished in this century on two hands; on my street in Palms, in four long blocks, there were probably three or four. And of course, many of LA’s single-family zones have functionally added no new dwelling units in decades.

If we are to use the lessons of Death and Life to help address the challenges many cities face today, we have to start with the recognition that neighborhood character comes from people, not buildings. The buildings don’t make the community; they just make it possible for the people who make the community to live there. Design matters and can make a difference, but only if you have enough buildings for all the people who want to be a part of the city.

Greenwich Village today is not what it was in 1961. Do we like how Greenwich Village, and countless other neighborhoods in coastal cities, are actually functioning today, with rising rents and reduced access to the city for those who need it most? Or do we just like how they look?

I tried to look up rents in my old building in the North End, but it’s been condo converted. A mortgage on the cheapest unit would be at least two and a half times my rent. Are we really willing to pay such a price just to look good?

Make 2016 the Year We Change Housing in LA

By now, you’ve probably heard of the latest anti-development NIMBY initiative in LA. Like many bad policies, it comes wrapped in an ambiguous but benevolent-sounding name, the “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.” It is not clear to this observer what this initiative has to do with the admirable accomplishments and laudable missions of some of the organizations backing it.

What is clear is that this initiative will make LA’s housing crisis worse. It will make it more difficult to build housing near transit, destroy the city’s ability to secure new affordable housing units in exchange for additional density, and cost the region good-paying construction jobs at a time that blue-collar workers are struggling to keep up. By driving up rents, it will reduce the amount of money that ordinary people have to spend on necessities like food and health care.

NIMBYs complain that the city is violating zoning regulations by approving additional density for housing developments. This is daft. The city creates the zoning regulations, the zoning regulations allow for exceptions, and the city council can enact changes when it chooses. The city does not violate its own zoning regulations by granting exceptions in the same way that the Legislature does not violate CEQA, a law it passed, by amending CEQA.

NIMBY planning has been worsening LA’s housing crisis for over 40 years. But being wrong (again) doesn’t mean they won’t get their way. Policy doesn’t get enacted because it’s right (though that doesn’t hurt), it gets enacted because people organize to get it. And unfortunately, NIMBYs are well organized.

That means it’s time for us to organize. We’re not going to solve the housing crisis unless we put political pressure on cities in the region to allow more housing. And the first order of business is not going any further backwards, which means defeating this initiative.

Let’s make 2016 the year we organize and demand change. Let’s bring people across LA together to meet the housing crisis head on. Let’s work for an open and inclusive LA, where anyone is welcome and can find housing at a reasonable price.

Stay tuned for more…

Where’s the IE Housing Boom?

LA needs a housing boom. That, we know beyond a doubt.

However, housing is a regional market, and the SoCal market includes the Inland Empire, which has historically been an outlet for housing demand in LA County and Orange County. The IE does have some apartment development, but it’s best known for its single-family residence (SFR) subdivisions, where houses are considerably cheaper than in LA-OC.

SFR construction in the IE is probably a pretty low priority for most urbanists, but there’s a pretty good case it’s not a bad thing. For one, growth in the IE provides at least some measure of new housing to check price and rent increases in LA-OC. Second, The IE is projected to be one of California’s fastest growing employment centers, and those folks will need housing close to where they work. Last, given how much of the IE is already developed, many projects are effectively suburban infill. Since regional density is more important than local density in determining vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita, one of the best ways to reduce VMT per capita is for the IE to look more like LA.

If you went back to 2012 or 2013 and asked housing market watchers, they likely would have expected more growth in SFR construction in places like the IE by today. (Some little corners of Twitter can hardly wait to shove an SFR boom in people’s faces; you know who you are.) To be honest, I expected suburban growth in the IE to have returned full force, and ended all the speculation about the death of the suburbs. That expectation was not based on supposed Millennial housing preferences or demographic shifts or gas prices or anything like that, but on land use policy realities: people would move to where housing was cheap, and housing would be cheap in the IE because it’s so much easier to build new SFRs there than to redevelop land in LA-OC.

Despite steadily increasing prices, though, there’s no sign of an SFR boom. Calculated Risk has the run down on housing starts at the national level as of September. Happily, after tapering off earlier this year, multifamily starts have picked back up. Single-family starts are still lower than at any time since 1969 except the brief, sharp recession of 1981-1982, and are only increasing slowly despite over 6 years of very low construction levels.

This is true at the local level too. While multifamily starts in LA-OC are at least back to prerecession levels (though still much lower than in the 1980s, and they need to be even higher than that), SFR starts are incredibly lame: less than 1,000 permitted per month, worse than even the early 1990s recession that pummeled SoCal’s economy. You could, to some extent, argue that’s about land: the only places in LA-OC with any appreciable amount of land for SFR construction are Irvine and the Antelope Valley, and Irvine actually does have an honest-to-goodness boom. The Antelope Valley is too far from job growth centers; its boom in the 1980s was related to the local defense industry, and SFR construction there is practically non-existent today as there is no price support.

LA-OC total starts

On the other hand, there’s plenty of land in places like Ontario and Fontana, both for large master plans of the type that exploded in Eastvale in the 2000s, and for small infill subdivisions. Lack of suitable sites is not the issue. And yet, SFR construction in the IE is going nowhere.

IE total starts

The IE economy was badly damaged by the recession, but job growth has resumed and passed the prerecession peak.

IE job growth

In addition, LA-OC has had fairly strong job growth, which should create spillover effects in the IE housing market.

LA-OC job growth

But IE housing construction is very weak. Why is this?

The new SFRs that are being produced are high end houses. Bloomberg reports that nationally, starter homes are increasingly beyond young people’s grasp. Anecdotally, keeping an eye on what the suburban home builders are offering, you almost can’t find any new construction in Eastvale, Chino, Ontario, Fontana, or Jurupa Valley for under $400,000. In a region with a median household income of about $55,000, that is a luxury product. If you want to find new construction below $300,000, you’ll have to go to Menifee, Perris, or places east of the 215, which is impractical if you work in LA-OC.

This situation is perhaps even more surprising given that the IE has had no real wage growth. It’s not like people are making lots more money and looking to buy bigger.

IE wages

The lack of cheaper SFR construction has been attributed to just about everything under the sun, from materials costs to labor costs, from tight lending conditions to municipal reluctance to permit cheaper housing, from Millennial preferring cities to home builders preferring to target the top of the market. Whatever the cause, so long as SFR construction in the IE remains weak, it is even more imperative that we solve our housing construction issues in LA-OC, to keep the region from becoming ever more unaffordable.