Thursday, May 30, 2024

What is zoning and how does it affect housing in California?

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The Californian housing crisis has been one of the century’s most dire issues, prompting skyrocketing living costs that have spurred displacement and homelessness to rare levels—and with local zoning and land‐​use regulations increasing substantially over the past few decades, particularly in California, urban planners and affordable housing advocates are noting that it is one of the many ways that contributes to this crisis.

So first of all…

What is zoning and are there different types?

To put it succinctly, zoning regulates how land can be used and what can be built where—and yes, there are different types.

Commercial zoning, for example, allows a business to be built on a specific plot; this will explain how some neighborhoods, particularly including every single suburb, has rows of houses without, say, a market in between your neighbors. And the previous mention stretch of homes in a given space means it was zoned for residential.

Then there are different types of commercial and residential zones: Sometimes you can have an industrial use like an auto body shop and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you can build a complex with multiple units and sometimes you can only build a single-family home.

Take a glance at the City of Los Angeles: single-family zoning is known as “R1,” meaning one residential unit on one lot. Other zoning designations include “R2″—two residential units on a lot, plus other uses—and “R3,” which can include boarding houses and childcare facilities, and so on and so forth.And there are many other types—just look at the list of zoning designations in the City of Long Beach alone.

“Well, I have a condo and right street level below me is a fast food joint,” someone might say. That is called mixed-use zoning, where ground-floor retail businesses and above-ground residential units occupy the same building. This type of zoning is common in particularly urban areas like Downtown Long Beach.All these zones can have other variances as well, such as height restrictions.

And the growing number of rules and regulations on urban land zoning has largely stemmed from very well-intentioned efforts: People want to promote public safety, environmental objectives, and aesthetic goals for their neighborhoods—and rightfully so.

So how is zoning bad if it’s meant to promote safety and keep the neighborhood beautiful?

A major side effect of these growing zoning rules has been the reduction in the supply of housing, especially including multi-family and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability challenges.So excessive zoning which favors single-family homes or diminishes the ability to build more affordable living spaces create an overall decrease in affordability. For example, some cities do permit multi-family complexes to be built but, due to height restrictions, make that building nearly impossible out of a duplex or four-plex, thus still keeping supply at a minimum.

There is also another pejorative aspect to the restrictive zoning we impose: A disproportionate amount of federal spending on affordable housing that can be alleviated through local problem solving, including an easing on zoning restrictions.

According to a study from the CATO Institute, the federal government spent almost $200-billion-with-a-B to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015:

“While these subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem, the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. “For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region. Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land‐​use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation.”

Even more, zoning and land use regulations create almost every sense of your daily environment: From how many parking spaces to parks to bike paths to how close your grocery store is, zoning played a role.

Wait—has zoning always been this powerful? Who controls it?

In a very generic sense, zoning and land use regulations are overseen by boards—like the Planning Commission here in Long Beach—who are assisted by professional planners working at the city—like those in the Public Works department at City Hall in Long Beach.

“It wasn’t always true that zoning had such broad jurisdiction,” said Vanessa Brown Calder, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “Comprehensive zoning and land-use planning were mostly unknown in America prior to the 20th century. Property rights remained intact, and the courts adjudicated disputes between landowners.”

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But then came the car and with it, traffic. Lots of it. This is where Los Angeles has its mark in the history of zoning: It is credited with creating—in 1908, mind you, the very year Ford introduced the Model T to the masses—the first municipal-wide zoning and land use plan.According to historian William Fischel, such plans had been adopted by 68 additional cities in under a decade. By 1928, the Supreme Court issued a ruling supporting “zoning as an expression of police power.”

“Perhaps encouraged by the ruling, another 1,246 municipalities adopted zoning in the 10 years between 1926 and 1936,” Calder noted.

The overall result? A zoning boom with huge albeit very conflicting goals—environmental mindfulness, public safety, building and design standards, accessibility to housing—all the while allowing communities to control their property tax base and creating pockets of housing that were deeply segregationist and exclusive.

So if I own a single-family home, I’m the bad guy?

No, no, and no.The problem is that two-thirds of all the housing in the entire state is solely zoned for single-family use—and that type of living, according to affordability advocates and most working class folks, is a relic of the past and should be viewed as luxury living. In fact, according to a UC Berkeley study—the university of the very city that invented the single-family home zone as a segregationist practice to prevent a Black-owned dance hall from locating near a white-only subdivision—anti-density zoning and local opposition to multi-family housing predicts higher prices.

Even more, it points out that:Cities and counties with more educated and white residents are more likely to experience opposition to new housing, which can stymie projects that meet local standards.

Cities and counties that are dominated by single-family zoning are more racially segregated. Jurisdictions that rely on anti-density zoning exclude blue-collar workers.Segregated residential patterns are not inevitable, but zoning helps perpetuate them.

Is California doing anything that could help create more affordability in housing?

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two bills earlier this year—September of 2021—meant to make it easier to build more housing. The first, Senate Bill 9, makes it possible to build more than one housing unit on land that was previously designated for only one unit. The second, Senate Bill 10, allows for denser development near public transit corridors, such as bus and train lines.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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