Tag Archives: SFR

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.

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

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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.

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‘Round Glendale: West Wilson Ave

Our inaugural look at development patterns in Glendale starts with W Wilson Ave, which runs from Brand Blvd, Glendale’s main street, to San Fernando Rd, which forms the border with Los Angeles and has a decidedly more industrial aesthetic.

For readers outside SoCal, Brand Blvd is Glendale’s main commercial street, home to everything from Glendale’s small skyscraper district to car dealerships to Rick Caruso’s wildly successful Americana at Brand, along with a wide variety of local businesses. Glendale’s early planners put a stunning view of the Verdugo Mountains to the north, and later planners in Los Angeles anchored the view to the south with the Library Tower. Brand serves as the west-east dividing line in the city, and it’s here we’ll start our journey down W Wilson Ave – down indeed, as this entire part of Glendale slopes gently west towards the LA River.

Downtown Glendale

Well, we’ll almost start at Brand. I’m going to cheat, and start one block east at Maryland, in order to offer up a couple more buildings. First up is the Maryland Hotel, one of only a few pre-war (World War 2, that is) multifamily buildings we’ll see. How do we know it’s pre-war? Fire escapes and no parking!

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Kitty corner to that is a construction site, future home of the Laemmle Lofts – a mixed-use development of 42 apartments, a restaurant, and a 5-screen movie theater.

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Across from that on the south side, there’s a one-story commercial building housing some restaurants and medical offices.

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This side of the block has a nice mid-block pedestrian court leading to The Exchange, one of the oldest developments of the “new” downtown.

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On the northeast corner of Brand and Wilson, there’s a Jewelry Mart in an older one-story commercial building, fitting since Glendale is the Jewel City.

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There’s another set of older one-story buildings across Brand, on the north side of Wilson, with small retail spaces that are the perfect fit for local and niche businesses. Los Angeles in general has a wealth of this type of space; let’s hope the commercial construction market picks up so that rents don’t start to rise too much.

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The building at far right is currently vacant; it used to be a Staples but apparently before that it was a Woolworth’s.

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On the south side of Wilson, stretching from Brand to Orange, is a big, bold symbol of the new downtown Glendale: The Brand Apartments.

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There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s take a closer look. First off, let me say that I love this building. I think it looks great. Since it’s got frontage on Brand, which is by far Glendale’s highest-demand retail street, the retail filled up almost instantly with a Chipotle and a Tender Greens. They may not be your cup of tea but established brands that can pay higher rents are what you’re gonna get in new retail more often than not. The mix of businesses in the older building across the street is a reminder of the importance of having some old buildings. Of course, let’s not forget that if you don’t have any new buildings today, you won’t have any old buildings tomorrow.

Here’s a shot of The Brand showing its neighbor to the south, the 20-story Glendale City Center office building. I’m told the zoning at The Brand would have allowed for another 20-story building, but the market for high-rise residential just isn’t there.

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Here it is looking southeast back towards Brand.

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The next block west is the second part of the same development, and again, I think they did a fantastic job.

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The horizontal elements break up the façade nicely, the vertical stone-faced element is a beautiful accent, and the orange support is a nod to the first building that ties things together without being repetitive. The orange accents are also a nod to Orange St, which runs between the two buildings, and now has one of the more urban vistas in Glendale.

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Note how the second floor is cantilevered out over the sidewalk, with the balconies projecting further. Here’s another shot showing the second building doing that.

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A reliable source tells me that the edge of the second floor projection is at the property line. I like the effect; it creates a wider sidewalk at street level, but doesn’t make the street room feel any wider, so it still feels like a downtown.

The north side of the street here is another block of small, older one-story commercial buildings, home to a mix of small restaurants and retail.

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A Big 5, super convenient if you’re in need of outdoor supplies, takes us to Central on the south side, with the north side being a parking lot.

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The northwest corner of Wilson and Central is another strip mall, while the southwest corner is currently under construction with another mixed-use development.

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Development in this area is governed by the Glendale Downtown Specific Plan, designed to encourage mixed-use development – the “18-hour city” as official plans call it. The zoning for this area is shown below.

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The zoning regulations of interest to readers are summarized below:

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Note that the zones with the highest density, DSP/BC-B and DSP/BC-C, are occupied by The Brand apartments and Glendale City Center, but there’s a lot of area with 4-6 stories by right still available. Parking requirements are one spot for singles and 1-bedroom units, two spots for all others, and one guest spot for every 10 units for projects of 10 or more units. This probably sounds like a lot to many readers, though it’s less than required elsewhere.

Vineyard – Central to Columbus

Past here, we’re out of the Downtown Glendale Specific Plan and into West Glendale, or Vineyard if you want to get particular about it, and development changes to smaller scale, all residential buildings. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to open up Google Earth and turn on 3D buildings so you can see what’s really going on; it’s totally impossible to figure it out from the street! Development here offers a lot of inspiration for how to densify existing single-family neighborhoods, but wily West Wilson hides a lot of its tricks from view.

First up, this handsome pre-war apartment block called Canterbury Court. Note its size relative to its neighbor! The Tudor-ish façade is interesting too, since that style enjoyed a renaissance during the 1980s apartment boom, as we’ll see later. The age of many buildings on Wilson is missing in this handy database, but it does have data for Canterbury Court – 1928.

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The first building on the south side of the street is this single-family house, with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) behind it not shown.

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West of that is our first trick building. From the street, it looks like a simple fourplex, with numbering (330, 330 ½, 332, 332 ½) that evokes prewar patterns.

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Check it out in Google Earth, though, and this fourplex has a hidden ADU building (can we call it a rear house!?) that looks like it has another four units! This unimposing lot appears to be developed at close to dingbat density.

On the north side, we have three larger 1980s apartment blocks (the underground parking is a dead giveaway as to the era of construction).

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This one is harder to place (it’s 1975), but I really like the twin chimneys and peaked roof.

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Back to the south side, we’ve got a classic dingbat (1961) and a building that I’m guessing is from the 1980s just because it looks like boatloads of unprofitable condos built around Lake Tahoe at the same time (and indeed, it’s 1987).

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The next building west puts on the front of a single-family residence (SFR), but it’s got an ADU out back and it’s actually a duplex itself.

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Moving back to the north side, we’ve got an SFR and a dingbat, built in 1962.

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Well, at least that’s what we have in front! The dingbat’s got a rear house that appears to be two more units, and the SFR has an ADU building.

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West of that, there are three buildings that genuinely appear to be SFRs.

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Back to the south side again, there’s another classic dingbat, and an older SFR.

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We’ve then got another dingbat with a rear house (built 1963) just peeking out into view.

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A newer single-lot apartment building (built 2005) and two large dingbat-like buildings (1986 and missing) take us to the corner of Columbus on the south side.

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On the north side, three SFRs take us to Columbus. The first has a couple units over a carport in the back, and the second has a single ADU. The houses all date to the 1910s and 1920s.

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Vineyard – Columbus to Pacific

This block starts with a bang, with dueling dingbats on the corners, both built in 1963.

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After that, on the north, we have an SFR with a four-unit rear house behind it, and a large 1984 building.

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On the south side, we have a single SFR (just visible on the left), and an SFR with a multi-unit ADU behind it.

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This is one of the trickiest blocks on W Wilson; housing units are everywhere – blink and you’ll miss them. Fortunately we have an alley between Wilson and Broadway to help us get a little better view on the south side. The next two buildings on the south side are what looks like an SFR and, um, what?

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Maybe we can get a better view from the back.

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Yep, that’s three cottages with a two-unit rear house over a carport. And surprise: totally invisible from Wilson, there are two little buildings behind the SFR

Next up is another larger structure, dating to 1991, the very tail end of the 1980s boom.

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This is followed by another SFR with a four-unit rear house.

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Note that there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but the size isn’t necessarily a good proxy for number of units! In fact, the adjacent building to the west is a newer project, taking up 4 lots, but appearing to only have 18 units (4.5 units per lot, the maximum allowed by the current zoning). They’re certainly larger units, but on a dwelling unit basis, this building is less dense.

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Back on the north side, we have two SFRs, but they both have ADUs, hidden but for the subtle house number that can be seen at the edge of the yellow house.

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There are also two SFRs across the street on the south side, and the one on the right looks to be the only unit on the lot. The one on the left has a second house in the back, hidden from view on Wilson.

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There are two more SFRs to the west on the south side, with the left one harboring a four-unit rear house, and the right one harboring a small parking lot for, um, what? The buildings across the alley?

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The north side of the street is much more straight-forward: several 1980s apartment buildings and then two SFRs to take us to the corner of Pacific. The apartment building on the right is from 2002.

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The south side finishes up with two SFRs that, of course, have ADUs out of sight. They’re actually big enough to be called houses in their own right.

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Vineyard – Pacific to Concord

Ok, ready to push through the last block? Well, plus a little coda, and a zoning discussion?

As we’ll see, the further we get from downtown Glendale, the less dense the development gets. The southwest corner of Pacific and Wilson is the last big pre-war multi-family building we’ll see. The architecture, lack of parking, and numbering scheme (500, 500 ½, 502, 502 ½) are the giveaway.

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Next, there’s a few SFRs; the one on the left has an ADU in the back. With only a few exceptions, the SFRs on this block date to the early 1920s.

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The north side of the block starts out with SFRs as well; I think the center one in the first picture has an ADU but it’s hard to tell from the street. The house in the center of the second picture definitely does, but it’s not easy to see. The one on the right in the last picture also has an ADU, which can be seen in Google Earth.

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On the south side, we have the first large apartment building on the block, taking up two lots. This building was built in 1979, before any downzoning, at the head end of the 1980s boom.

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Two true SFRs with no ADUs on the south side take us to Kenilworth Ave, a small local street.

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Next, on the north side, we have a single SFR, followed by a large 1985 apartment building that takes up four lots and appears to have about 20 units. The landscaping on the street makes it almost impossible to see all four buildings at once.

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On the south side, there’s a 1987 building and a 1963 building, both typical for their time.

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This is followed by a small SFR set so far back on the lot that one might conclude this was originally an ADU to a dearly departed main dwelling. However, if that’s the case, the original house has been gone since at least 1989, Google’s oldest aerial image for the region. The sign out front announces a proposed triplex on the site, the greatest number of units allowed by the current zoning.

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Next to that is a 1980s-looking building that shows how much more density was previously allowed.

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Back on the north side, there’s an SFR with an ADU peeking out; in Google Earth, it looks like the rear building actually has two units.

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The next house west straight up has a second house in the back yard.

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On the south side, there are two handsome SFRs; at left, an ADU can be seen, and there is a third unit totally hidden from view.

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Next to that is a large apartment block on two lots – two buildings, not identical but fraternal twins, dating to 1983 and 1985.

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Further down, a classic modern stucco apartment house from 1963 (hey, didn’t we see you on dingbats dingbats dingbats?) and a Tudor-ish 1974 building on four lots.

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Across from that, on the north side, are several SFRs; all but one have ADUs, but you’ll have to look in Google Earth to see them.

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The north side of the block continues to stretch west with SFRs; some have ADUs, while others are actually duplexes, a type we haven’t yet seen much of on Wilson.

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You’ll really have to look closely in Google Earth and Street View to try to see what’s what. Here’s a few where you can catch a glimpse of the ADU.

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Here’s one of the more obvious duplexes.

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Rounding out the residential units on the south side, we have an SFR (with an ADU not shown) and a dingbat with a rear house.

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There’s a large one-lot 1973 building and then two true SFRs without ADUs.

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The south side then goes industrial, with some single story office/warehouse type buildings.

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Vineyard – Concord to San Fernando

The last little block takes us down to San Fernando Rd, which runs next to the Metrolink tracks that form the boundary with Los Angeles. This block is made up of one-story industrial uses.

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At the corner of San Fernando, there’s a small local hangout.

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Vineyard – Zoning

Zoning west of Central is covered by Glendale’s general zoning plan.

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From east to west, the blocks of W Wilson are zoned R-1250, R-1650, R-2250, and IMU. The R zones are residential multi-family zones, where the number indicates the required lot area in square feet per unit. IMU is industrial/commercial mixed use. Parking requirements are 2 spots per unit, except 2.5 spots for 3-bedroom units and 3 spots for 4-bedroom units.

Thus, the permitted residential density on W Wilson steps down as you head west towards San Fernando Rd. Lots on the north side of Wilson appear to be about 50’ x 140’ lot, which translates to 5, 4, and 3 units per lot; on the south side, lots appear to be about 50’ x 175’, which translates to 7, 5, and 3 units per lot.

Which Way, W Wilson?

West Wilson Ave presents an interesting variety of residential housing types, from single-family houses to large apartment buildings, backyard cottages to dingbats with rear houses. In these few blocks, it captures both the opportunities and challenges for housing in greater LA in general.

The housing types of W Wilson point the way forward for natural growth of less dense neighborhoods, such as centrally located single-family areas. These options – ADUs, rear houses, small apartment buildings – are some of the best ways to improve housing affordability. They’re lower cost to construct, and don’t result in the loss of a lot of existing units. They allow for an evolution of building types rather than a sudden change. There are still development opportunities on Wilson; you could buy one of the remaining SFRs and built townhouses or put up some ADUs in the back. We would do well to allow other neighborhoods to grow the way Wilson did.

On the other hand, this area was clearly downzoned in the 1980s. There are lots occupied by SFRs where you can only build 3 or 4 units, despite the adjacent lots having 7 to 10 units. If housing prices in LA continue to rise, there will be pressure to redevelop lots that are currently occupied by a SFR and a few ADUs. Under the current zoning, we won’t end up with more housing units, just larger, newer, more expensive units. In some cases, redevelopment might result in a net reduction of units. It shouldn’t be a radical idea that new development be permitted to be at least as dense as its neighbors. Would a few 5-story buildings really make a big difference in how the street feels?

The foot of Wilson Ave, along with San Fernando Rd itself, is worth looking at in more detail, in a future post. For now, development patterns on Wilson Ave stand as proof that we do know how to do mixed-use projects and residential density in the LA region, when we let ourselves do them.

Single-Family Homes and Affordability

The big news in land use wonkdom is one of the recommendations of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee: that the city consider doing away with single-family zoning in many areas, perhaps entirely. To understand why this is such a big deal, let’s take a closer look at the single-family residence (SFR), both in terms of its economic function and its space in city planning.

The Economics of the SFR

From the perspective of affordability, the SFR is terrific – terrific twice, in fact.

First, SFRs are the cheapest kind of housing to build on a unit area basis. At the margins of the city, where land is cheap and constraints are few, large numbers of SFRs can be built based on a few variations of a few basic design templates, keeping costs even lower. The SFR will pencil out when and where almost no other type of development will. There are cases where it’s profitable to go directly from vacant land to dense apartments at the edge of the city, but that’s often indicative of highly distorted housing markets – in other words, to go directly from vacant land to dense housing at the fringe, something must be artificially raising housing prices or subsidizing development. The ability to provide new housing cheaply through SFR construction helps keep regional housing prices low.

Second, in built-up parts of a city, SFRs are the easiest type of land use to redevelop, excluding vacant land at infill sites. This is for the same reason that SFRs pencil out first at the urban fringe – they are the lowest value use of land. As we explored in the limits to redevelopment, more intense existing land uses require longer to redevelop and have higher opportunity costs, thus requiring higher prices to justify redevelopment. For example, a one-story commercial retail building or a 6-unit apartment will generate more income than an SFR, so they will only redevelop at higher prices. In addition, redevelopment of SFRs is less disruptive to communities and carries less risk of displacement. Thus, SFRs are not only the easiest type of residence to develop, they’re also the easiest type of residence to redevelop.

The Single-Family House and Planning

From the perspective of planning, the cardinal rule of urban development in many cities has been, for decades, that SFRs and SFR neighborhoods must be “preserved” and “protected”. No matter how much SFR owners protest otherwise, they are one of the best-organized and most powerful political forces in land use. Open a general plan or community plan in any growing American city and you will likely find language about “protecting” SFR neighborhoods. In this framework, single-family housing is a bystander in urban land use, a passive actor that is almost invariably degraded by other types of development.

Given the economics of SFRs and development, this is clearly not the case. Policies to prohibit the redevelopment of SFRs, especially in wealthy areas, raise the regional housing price level until it is feasible to redevelop higher-intensity land uses or demand can be forced to flow to other neighborhoods. This results in higher housing prices and the potential for displacement.

The recommendation of the Seattle HALA Advisory Committee may not result in any changes to the city’s SFR zones. However, it is extremely important just that these issues are on the table in a major US city. Cities, regions, and states might decide to retain SFR zoning near the core of metro areas. But they should only do so after an honest accounting of the costs and impacts – and who those costs fall on.

Four LA-Native Housing Types that are Ready to go to Work Solving Our Affordable Housing Problem

LA needs a housing boom. Not just in downtown or Hollywood or Santa Monica, but everywhere. From Reseda to Harbor Gateway, Palms to Fontana, Bellflower to Mar Vista. It can’t be just a few enormous projects; we need thousands and thousands of small projects all of the region. To paraphrase Mao, let a thousand dingbats bloom, let a thousand accessory dwelling units contend.

In that spirit, here’s four housing types already found all over LA that are good to go. All we gotta do is let them do their thing.

Dingbats

We sort of have to start here, don’t we? The dingbat is probably the definitive LA apartment type. Reviled by architecture critics and urbanists for their style, doubted by structural engineers for their seismic stability, lived in by hundreds of thousands for their undeniable functionality and cost effectiveness.

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On the style count, well, everyone can’t be as beautiful as Andres Duany. If you care about architecture, worry about making sure that architectural variety and experimentation aren’t being sacrificed at the altar of neighborhood character. Most of us can’t afford Hermès, but we’ll happily take Forever XXI.

On the seismic count, the problem with dingbats is the open nature of the first level caused by parking bays. (In engineering parlance, it’s a soft story because it has much less shear strength than the solid-wall apartments above.) This can be fixed pretty easily by (1) reducing parking requirements and eliminating the problem in the first place and (2) engineering better connections between the steel supports and the wood above. It’s a trivial problem – really.

Where should they be built? Just about anywhere in LA County. In the City of LA, the sweet spot for dingbats is probably neighborhoods that are currently zoned for minimal multiple-family (RD or R2) where dingbats could probably be built under R3 or R4.

Attached Apartments

Regardless of the zoning code’s approval or lack thereof, accessory dwelling units and attached apartments abound across the city. It’s a win-win-win: the region gets a bunch of apartments supervised by someone who’s bound to really give a crap about the impact of their tenants (i.e. an on-site owner), owners get some bonus income from renting the units, and renters get, you know, a place to call their own.

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You see these here and there in places like Palms and Torrance, sometimes even purpose-built as SFRs with apartments in back. In a few places, like Hawthorne, you see them all over the place. It’s a really natural addition to neighborhoods.

Where should they be built? Any single-family neighborhood that hasn’t seen an increase in supply in about 50 years. In the City of LA, this is everything R1 and below.

Cudahy Lots

Way back at the turn of the last century, LA was seeing a large number of immigrants from the Midwest, looking for better weather and better work. Michael Cudahy enticed a bunch of them to buy long, skinny lots (50’-100’ wide by 600’-800’ long) in his eponymous city, with the idea being that you could build a house and have a huge back yard for a garden or orchard.

As the population of LA County boomed, these lots were redeveloped into apartment complexes that are sort of like the megafauna of railroad flats.

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The resulting urban form looks like low-rise suburbia, but creates surprisingly high densities: Cudahy is the second-densest city in California (after Maywood).

In addition to their namesake city, Cudahy lot redevelopments can be found in places like El Monte. Historically, these redevelopments have been mostly 1-2 story low-rise, but there should be no harm in letting them go to 3-4 stories and do apartments.

Where should they be built? Any place that has the requisite lot type. This includes Sylmar, Avocado Heights, Fontana, several parts of San Bernardino, Jurupa Valley, parts of the Antelope Valley, and the remaining lots in Cudahy and El Monte.

Podiums

You know podiums – they’re those mid-rises with up to 7 stories of wood-frame construction sitting on top of a story or two of concrete base. The height limitations are due to seismic code and fire code requirements, which in LA essentially mandate steel and concrete construction for anything over 75’ tall.

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Podiums often draw a lot of architectural criticism (first law of affordable housing – the more reviled it is, the better the job it’s doing at being affordable, right down to the ultimate rural affordable housing, the universally despised trailer park). As I’ve said before, this blog isn’t in the business of worrying about architecture. Podiums are great as a building form, and like any, they can be executed well or not so well.

In the scheme of housing, podiums are the last gasp of cost-effective wood-frame construction before you’re forced to incur the costs of steel and concrete frames. The first three options in this post can be constructed for around $60-$100 per square foot. With podiums, cost rise up to around $200/SF, so they’ll always be more expensive to build. The trade-off is usually taking a smaller unit, and perhaps being able to save on transportation. Of course, after the building capital costs have been paid off and the units start to filter, rents can fall in older buildings.

High-rises cost considerably more, around $400-$500/SF, which is why affordable housing solutions that depend on them are a bad idea when there’s enough room for the four cheaper options presented here. High-rises still play an important role, though, because they satisfy luxury demand and prevent it from bidding up prices for low-rise and mid-rise construction. That’s why we should allow construction of (unsubsidized) market-rate high-rises.

Fortunately, LA is a huge region, and we have plenty of space to grow. We can build all the housing we need without needing high-rises for a long, long time.

Where should they be built? Anywhere on the Westside, much of Southbay, parts of the Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

Do the Math

Recent estimates have put LA County’s deficit of affordable housing units at about 500,000. Population growth probably requires somewhere around 30,000 units per year, so let’s round that up to 50,000 per year (on the assumption that more affordable housing would increase population growth).

So, if we could build 100,000 housing units per year for the next 10 years, we’d be getting back on track. That may seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down, I think it’s achievable. Maybe it looks something like this, every year:

  • 10,000 SFRs (basically Antelope Valley & Santa Clarita)
  • 20,000 ADUs
  • 30,000 dingbat units (or 3,750 8-unit buildings per year)
  • 35,000 podium units (or 350 100-unit buildings per year)
  • 5,000 Cudahy lot units (or 333 15-unit buildings per year)

Aren’t these numbers a little audacious? Not really. This boils down to building 27 SFRs and 55 ADUs per day, along with about 10 dingbats, 1 podium, and 1 Cudahy lot redevelopment. This amount of construction might be a little jarring at first, just because we’ve adjusted to a slow growth level of construction. But technically, it’s trivial – does anyone really think it’s hard to find the capital, materials, and labor to build one podium per day? These targets are the equivalent of building about 275 housing units per day.

Realistically, you probably wouldn’t even have to hit those targets, because market-rate high-rises, non-profit developers, and institutional builders (like universities) will also be building units.

As with any product, the way you reduce costs is by standardizing the plans and the procedures for putting them together. In some future posts, we’ll take a look at how that can be done in the case of these housing types.

‘Round Palms – Hannum Drive

Way overdue for another look at land development patterns in Palms. As we’ve seen before, Palms isn’t just dingbats – there’s a healthy proportion of newer buildings along with some original single-family houses. Busier streets like Motor, Clarington, and Palms Boulevard itself have transitioned to apartment houses almost entirely. However, today’s tour takes us down Hannum Drive, a quiet side street that runs for just one block between Hughes and Feris, and still has a cluster of SFRs.

Hannum starts at Hughes, across the street from this construction site, which was SFRs as recently as last fall, when I did my tour of Hughes.

01-HughesConstr

The south side of Hannum starts out in typical Palms style, with two small 6-unit apartment buildings (1963 on the right, 1973 on the left).

02-SouthApts

Same story on the north side, with three small apartment buildings (a 1954 6-unit building just out of frame to the left, a 1963 fourplex, and a 5-unit building of unknown).

03-NorthApts

And then, just like that, you’re in SFR heaven the rest of the way to Faris. Here’s the south side, with a string of seven SFRs all dating to 1925-1926.

04-SouthHouses

The blue one even has a sizable yard made out of a vacant lot (I’m inferring same ownership by same last date sold).

05-SouthVacant

The north side has five SFRs in a row, all dating to 1925.

06-NorthHouses

Here’s another shot of the north side. The apartments in the background are on Faris and date to the 1980s.

07-NorthHouses2

South side. Cute!

08-SouthHouses2

A parting shot back up towards Hughes

09-Parting

Now, you might wonder if this little cluster of SFRs is protected by R1 zoning. Nope, it’s all R3.

ZIMAS-Hannum

This is how neighborhoods grow when you let them. This group of single-family homes is thriving, despite over six decades of apartment construction in Palms. No one is being forced to give up their home. There’s no “incompatible” development – new apartment buildings pop up every now and then, and everything works fine together.

This is also how neighborhoods grow when you don’t abuse eminent domain to assemble full blocks of property for redevelopment. Go back to the top and check out the new apartment building under construction on Hughes. It abuts a solitary SFR. You think the apartment developers didn’t try to buy that lot too? They probably did, but the SFR owners decided they didn’t want to sell. The result is that sometimes a new building is put up on several parcels assembled together, sometimes on two parcels, and sometimes just a single parcel, like a classic dingbat. This produces a variety of building sizes, structure heights, street frontages, and architecture that you just don’t get when you redevelop an entire block. Nobody would ever plan to put one SFR by itself on Hughes; it just happened.

Next time you’re around Palms, pay attention to this. It’s a great, positive example of how single-family houses and apartment buildings of different sizes and ages can coexist – the perfect antidote to whatever you’re hearing from your local NIMBYs.

People Move to Suburbs Because They’re Cheap, Volume 1

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’m following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at some different developments by D.R. Horton, which as of late February has 33 developments in some stage of progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 19 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. Note, D.R. Horton doesn’t put prices for all models on their website, so I’m making some reasonable assumptions indicated by with a ~, e.g. assuming that “high 200s” is about $290,000.

Now, you can get different customizations and finishes, but the big home builders are basically working off a few common plans they’ve developed. Peruse D.R. Horton and you’ll see a 2,798 SF option pop up regularly, priced as follows:

  • Indio (Mountain Estates): ~$315,000
  • Murrieta (Iris): ~$385,000
  • Temecula (Morgan Heights): ~$500,000
  • Eastvale (Noble): $550,400

Those are all in Riverside County.

Nothing too surprising here. Temecula is closer to San Diego County than Murrieta. Eastvale is one of the closest Riverside County cities to Orange County. Indio is the suburban fringe of the Coachella Valley. In other words, location matters, just like you’d expect.

There’s a common thread of urbanist thought that goes something like “operating a car costs about $8,000/yr, so you can afford to pay more for housing if you live in a place where you don’t need a car”. This has been extended to suggest that banks should consider household transportation costs when deciding if they should make loans, i.e. if household needs one less car, they can afford a larger loan. And indeed, the difference between Murrieta and Temecula at current 30-year fixed rates (4.35%) is about $6,950 per year – about the same as the cost of operating a car.

So let’s say that living in Temecula instead of Murrieta would let one person in the family bike to work instead of drive, allowing the family to get rid of a car. Why wouldn’t a bank give the family a larger mortgage to buy the same house in that case?

Because it’s a 30-year loan, and few people work in the same place for 30 years. If the person working in Temecula in the family living in Temecula loses his/her job and finds a new one in Menifee, now the family needs another car. Or, if the person loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, there’s no way for the family to quickly reduce its fixed expenses. If the person working in Temecula in the family living Murrieta loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, the family could reduce fixed expenses pretty quickly by selling a car. Simply put, it would be crazy for a bank to make a 30-year loan that depends on transportation costs being stable.

To finally reach my point, the real tradeoff that you make when you decide to live closer to the city is housing size: you accept a smaller dwelling in order to be closer. For example, you could get a 2,414 SF house in Fontana for around $390,000, or you could get an 1,851 SF townhouse in Rancho Cucamonga for about the same price. Of course, this pattern is distorted by zoning and other things like Prop 13, which encourages communities to try to drive up housing prices.

If you look at things on a per SF basis, prices increase as you move towards the more desirable areas, and there will be thresholds at which more expensive types of construction become feasible. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction.

D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs. Assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, but only LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small dwelling unit sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $500-$600/SF – a level that only some places in LA have reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.

A Modest Zoning Proposal

There’s a rezoning effort underway in Los Angeles, branded as recode:LA, that’s going to rewrite the city’s entire zoning regulation. This is a huge opportunity to make it easier to build in LA, restoring affordability and capitalizing on infrastructure investments. I’m planning to get involved and start attending meetings, and I encourage everyone interested in seeing LA flourish to do the same.

Where Are We Today?

First, a quick summary of where we are. Typically in LA, the arterials on the grid are zoned for commercial uses, and the area between the arterials is zoned for residential. For example, here’s the general zoning for Palms and Cheviot Hills.

Palms-CH-RP legend

To simplify things, there are 10 major residential zoning groups in LA, designated A through R5. Note that the default zoning in many New England suburbs equates to the lowest density zones available in LA, which explains why LA isn’t sprawl and is denser than everyone thinks. Here’s a summary of the major residential zoning requirements:

LAzoning

There’s also RAS3 and RAS4, which are basically R3 and R4 with ground-level retail permitted, and slightly less restrictive setbacks.

Where Do We Want to Go?

Now, before we start rezoning, we have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to do here. What goals are we trying to achieve? What do we hope LA will become?

For me, as I have said before, my main goals are affordability and opportunity. I want LA to be a place where low-income people can afford a roof over their heads, and where all people have the opportunity to pursue their goals in education, starting a business, etc. In my mind, that should be LA’s raison d’etre. Better infrastructure, including transit, is not a goal unto itself, but a means of achieving those two cardinal goals. Achieving these two goals would help address many other social concerns. Other benefits that might flow out of that, such as reduced per capita energy use, would be nice, but they’re not my main concern.

Part of my project here is to try to convince you that affordability and opportunity are the two best goals for improving LA. But obviously, not everyone is going to share my goals, and that’s ok. I don’t expect people in Rolling Hills or Calabasas to give a rat’s ass about affordability in their cities, because that’s not the reason those cities exist. The important thing is to recognize and be honest about your goals. If you say you’re in favor of affordability but also want to protect SFRs, you’re lying about one of them.

Of course, there’s a huge social justice and equity component to affordability and opportunity that I haven’t addressed on this blog yet, mainly because I know planning/engineering much better, and planning/engineering challenges are much easier to solve.

Back to the zoning.

How Do We Get There?

If I had my way, we’d just let people build however many apartments they want wherever they want. The collective knowledge of the market is almost certain to be better than anything planners could devise, not because planners are no good but because of the inherent complexity of the system. It would be like trying to do an analysis to figure out how many trees there should be in the forest and where they should grow.

It’s easy to sit around, say “upzone everything”, and then hit the bar and start pounding beers, but that’s ultimately an academic exercise. Any proposal to just upzone everything is probably dead in the water. It’s much harder to come up with a plausible plan that has a chance of being implemented. So here’s my attempt at a plan that I hope could win some public support. As with everything here, consider this a starting point; comments and suggestions for improvement are encouraged.

So, here’s the basic idea. The following rules would apply to areas currently zoned R1 through R5:

Pace of Redevelopment

  • In any neighborhood, 4% of lots will be permitted for redevelopment each year.
  • If a developer consolidates lots, the project requires a number of permits equal to the original number of lots. Future redevelopment of the consolidated lot would need only one permit. This encourages small-scale development.
  • The neighborhood council can decide to permit more than 4% at its discretion.
  • Permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This will encourage the best projects to be built first. It also gives opponents of development the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are – if they don’t want new development, they can buy all the permits.
  • Revenue from permit auctions to be invested in neighborhood improvements by the neighborhood council.
  • Permits expire 18 months after sale if no construction initiated – i.e. no permit hording, and opponents can’t foreclose on redevelopment forever by buying up permits for a few years.

Permitted Development

  • Any structure of up to 3 stories and up to 6 units per 5,000 SF lot is automatically permitted.
  • Any structure of equal in height to the 85th percentile height, plus one story, is automatically permitted.
  • Where automatically permitted, 4-story structures may have 10 units, 5-story structures may have 16 units, and 6-story structures may have 25 units, per 5,000 SF lot.
  • Mixed use development up to 6 stories and 200 SF lot area per unit automatically permitted on arterials (e.g. Venice, Western, Pico). Mixed use includes light industry that does not produce noise or odors. Commercial uses not restricted to ground floor.
  • Setbacks per current R4 standards, except arterials, to be per RAS4.
  • Nothing in these rules shall be interpreted as making existing zoning more restrictive.
  • Rules become effective 15 years after initial subdivision is recorded. This would allow owners in new subdivisions some certainty that property won’t immediately be redeveloped in newly established neighborhoods. This provision would have little effect in LA, where most neighborhoods are long established.

When it comes to the large lot zones – A, RA, RE – I would propose allowing them to be subdivided per current R1 zoning standards. After 15 years, the subdivided lots could be developed according to the above standards. But really, A/RA/RE are a small component of the plan. The major benefit is the above rules applied to zones R1 through R5.

In neighborhoods where these rules would result in buildings up to 75’ – the maximum for Type 3 construction – being automatically permitted, the neighborhood council and city could begin to consider allowing high-rises. I’m mostly ignoring high-rises in this proposal, because we don’t need a single high-rise in LA to make the city more affordable and welcome many more future Angelenos to our city.

Parking would be handled like Donald Shoup says it should.

How Does This Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain this concept would be by example. Take an existing R1-zoned neighborhood. In the first year, up to 4% of properties could get permits to be redeveloped into 3-story 6-unit apartment buildings – assuming, of course, that 4% of owners want to redevelop their property, and they don’t get outbid for the permits by opponents. Replacing 1 out of every 25 SFRs with a 3-story duplex where every floor is an apartment isn’t going to change the character of the neighborhood much. Under this plan, it would take at least 25 years for all structures to be replaced – a low rate of change.

In the second, third, and fourth years, the same thing would happen. Assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year for the first four years, by year five, 16% of the lots in the neighborhood would have 3-story buildings. Therefore, the 85th percentile height would be 3 stories, and 4-story buildings would become automatically permitted. Again assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year after that, in year nine, 5-story buildings would become automatically permitted, and so on.

Starting Points

Again, this proposal is just a starting point. I’d expect a healthy debate about the percentage of lots that can be redeveloped every year, the number of units allowed, and the percentile trigger that permits another story. We could also define a few different zones with different rates and triggers, some more permissive and some less permissive.

I will also note again that this is not necessarily my preferred solution; I’d rather leave more up to market forces. But this is a proposal that can hopefully accommodate a significant amount of new development to improve affordability, spread out the development so that no one area is overwhelmed, and still provide property owners with the certainty they desire.

So, what do you think? Is this a viable proposal? And what would make it better?