By Toby Muresianu
California’s housing crisis affects us all.
We see it in omnipresent homelessness, in COVID outbreaks in overcrowded housing, in freeways choked with super-commuters and the smog in our air. Or in our own crushing rent or mortgage payments.
LA is America’s least affordable housing market. California ranks 49th in housing per capita.
It’s no mystery why. Cheap housing used to be seen as a problem. LA effectively banned it by downzoning for decades so 60% fewer homes could be built, and adding expensive requirements to new construction.
It worked. Housing costs skyrocketed; problems followed.
The solution is simple: undo the bans.
However, many people fear change in their neighborhoods–often to the point of hyperbole. Bills to permit duplexes are painted as “skyscrapers in your backyard” or an “end to our way of life.” HOAs launch campaigns to pressure politicians; since these voters dominate local elections, politicians cave.
It’s worth a reality check.
1. More housing isn’t “an attack on single family homes.”
There’s nothing wrong with single family homes, or the people who live in them. There’s also nothing wrong with the multifamily housing, or the people who live in it. (In fact, studies find it’s the single best way for cities to reduce emissions).
But while single-family homes are allowed everywhere, multifamily homes are banned on 75% of the residential land in LA.
State reforms to “single family home-only zoning” propose allowing less expensive forms of housing, like duplexes or small apartments, in some of those areas–gradually, when homeowners decide to sell at a premium and builders want to pay it.
2. New housing does not mean “absolutely anyone will get to live in Brentwood.”
Brentwood will remain a fundamentally upscale neighborhood under any proposed zoning reforms. Neither Brentwood nor any neighborhood can alone provide housing for every rent-burdened citizen in LA. The regional nature of our housing shortage just means we all must do our part to address it.
3. We don’t “only need Affordable Housing.”
“Affordable Housing” is a confusing term with a specific legal meaning: subsidized housing for people at particular low income levels. While necessary, it’s only a partial solution. Most rent-burdened people don’t qualify, and most who qualify don’t get it.
Building it costs nonprofit developers $500,000 per unit, and an estimated 500,000 units are needed – meaning $250 billion, roughly 40x LA’s current tax revenue, would be required for government funding. This would also still require upzoning.
Changing expensive restrictions offers a twofold benefit: allowing subsidies to help more people and allowing new, inexpensive supply to keep rents down.
4. Reducing zoning restrictions doesn’t mean “government seizure.”
Zoning restrictions are, by definition, restrictions on the rights of property owners. They bar them from building more housing on their land, or selling at a premium to people who will.
5. Single family home-only zoning was created to segregate neighborhoods, but that doesn’t mean individual homeowners are “being called racist.”
Brentwood, like many neighborhoods, maintained segregation by using zoning to restrict residence to a 100% white wealth bracket as courts struck down widespread racial deed restrictions.
Happily, views have changed since then. However, these laws weren’t repealed, so they’re often still working as designed: restricting residents to a wealth bracket that’s overwhelmingly white. As such, they’re cited as examples of “systemic racism” and help explain why Brentwood remains 85% white in a 30% white city. However, this is a critique of laws, not physical homes or their owners.
I hope this answers some concerns, and that together we can meet the crises of today and welcome a more economically and environmentally sustainable tomorrow for LA.