Urban Planning

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BOTTOM-LINE, UP FRONT: The State of California has issued an ultimatum to LA’s local governments: reform your land use laws to allow more housing, or else we nuke your land use law this October and anything goes.

THE BACKGROUND

We’re in a housing crisis because it’s not legal to build enough housing in LA to meet the demand. The epicenter of the problem isn’t in the encampments under the 101 freeway – it’s in leafy suburbs like South Pasadena, Manhattan Beach, and Beverly Hills, where new housing has been almost totally banned in the last 50 years. Because of that, rich people priced out of South Pas move to middle-class Highland Park; middle-class people end up in working-class Boyle Heights; working-class people in Boyle Heights are shit out of luck. Welcome to gentrification.

The State’s solution is, each city has to meet a quota called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment and create a legally binding plan to meet it. (The quota for greater LA is 1.3 million new homes by 2029, and the cities divided up the quota amongst themselves.) If a city’s plan won’t cut the mustard, and the State can veto the rezoning plans. If the State vetoes a rezoning plan, local zoning law is void. Any building is legal to build, as long as it meets the health and safety code, and it’s either (i) 20% rent-controlled affordable housing, or (ii) market-rate housing at rents affordable to the middle classes. So, new residential towers in Beverly Hills? Kosher. Rowhouses in Redondo? Sure. Garden apartments in Glendale? Go for it.

FUCK AROUND AND FIND OUT

Anti-housing cities know these are the potential consequences of breaking the law, but they’ve been able to ignore state housing law and screw around for so long that none of them seem to have taken the consequences seriously. Because most cities’ plans are bullshit, full stop. From my earlier post, a sampling of cities’ rezoning plans are:

  • Beverly Hills: “We’ll tear down a bunch of 10-story office buildings to build 5-story apartment buildings.”

  • Burbank: “It’s legal to put all the new apartments near the freeway and the airport, with all the pollution and the noise, right?”

  • Redondo Beach: “We’ll evict Northrop Grumman, which is our city’s single largest employer.”

  • South Pasadena: “We’ll bulldoze City Hall and replace it with apartment buildings.”

  • Pasadena: “Let’s put all the new housing in the redlined neighborhoods.”

  • Whittier: “Let’s build a ton of new housing in wildfire zones.”

Pretty much the only good plan that I’ve seen comes from LA City, which made a serious, data-driven effort to figure out how to meet its 450,000-unit share of the quota. (If you want to see a rezoning plan, I can send you copies, but they’re huge PDFs.)

BRINGING THE BIG GUNS

Because the cities’ rezoning plans are so egregiously bad, there’s all kinds of easy targets here for the State to open fire on. But it requires the State to keep its nerve. This only works if you don’t give in to pressure from the annoying, loud minority of people who treat city council meetings as the Festivus Airing of Grievances.

At first, the State looked like it was going to chicken out. This is because of what happened with San Diego. San Diego’s rezoning plans were among the first to be reviewed by the State. And, unsurprisingly, San Diego’s rezoning plans were full of the same garbage we’ve seen for decades: lots of thoughts and prayers about building more housing, lots of unrealistic assumptions about how housing gets built, and very little concrete action. With the recall looming, Governor Newsom’s people folded and they rubber-stamped Greater San Diego’s lousy rezoning plans. It was bad.

The State forfeited its biggest source of leverage and caved. It boded ill for the fate of the rest of the rezoning plans all over the state. After all, there’s not too many ways that the State can force local governments to get their shit together without the State Legislature passing new laws. And, of course, it set a lousy precedent for LA. LA is full of bad-behaving cities who just don’t want to build new housing. Worse, it’s not just stereotypically affluent cities like South Pasadena or Santa Monica or Beverly Hills which behave this way. Middle-class cities like Whittier also have put forth rezoning plans composed of fantastical nonsense. In fact, there was exactly one well-done rezoning plan, and that was the one drawn up by the City of Los Angeles.

When the State rubber-stamped the garbage plans from San Diego, I expected the worst.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. 100% wrong.

I AM VERY BAD AT PREDICTING THE FUTURE SOMETIMES

When it came time for the State to review LA’s zoning plans, the State didn’t just veto these rezoning plans. They took it one step further, and ordered that if a city’s rezoning plan doesn’t fix things for real, that city’s zoning will be automatically voided in October of this year. Like I mentioned above, if the zoning gets voided, any new building is legal, as long as it meets the health and safety code, and it’s either (i) 20% rent-controlled affordable housing, or (ii) market-rate housing affordable to the middle classes.

But the State didn’t just go after the traditional never-build-anything cities, like Redondo, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and so on. They’re even threatening to nuke the zoning of the city of Los Angeles. And LA City did a pretty good job of assembling a rezoning plan.

The State is putting everyone on blast, for real, and taking no prisoners. I suspect that Gov. Newsom is going in guns blazing because he survived the recall handily, and a second term is virtually assured.

OKAY, FINE, BUT WHAT SHOULD A GOOD ZONING PLAN LOOK LIKE?

There’s going to be a lot of bitching and moaning in LA local government about having to make a compliant rezoning plan. The thing is, it’s not even that hard to put together a rezoning plan that allows for pleasant old-school neighborhoods to be built. It’s basically:

  1. Small apartment buildings and SF-style row houses legalized everywhere.

  2. Mid-sized apartment buildings near train stations.

  3. More towers downtown.

  4. Automatic approval within 60 days of anything that meets the zoning law and the building code.

  5. Abolishing the mandatory parking law. (LA’s current mandatory minimum parking laws require most office and apartment buildings to be 40-50% parking by square footage.)

This is the kind of zoning law that existed during the Red Car era. It ain’t rocket science. Coincidentally, up North, the city of Sacramento just approved this exact type of zoning plan. (Since Sacramento can figure out how to put together a plan to build lots of new housing, there’s no reason why LA’s cities can’t.) But if LA cities can’t get their act together like Sacramento did, their zoning is going to get nuked come October.

Sometimes, you fuck around, and you find out. It couldn’t happen to better people.

x-posted from r/lostsubways.

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