How local zoning laws, including Long Beach’s, have fueled California’s housing crisis

A new report from the Brookings Institution shows that local zoning laws across the state have heavily contributed to the housing crisis in California—and those zoning laws are used by the more privileged, specifically single-family home owners, to hinder the development of more housing.

The report’s first point is how common urban economic theory doesn’t hold up in California. It is generally agreed that if there is high value in land, a developer will attempt to increase density in order to garner the benefits of higher rent given the land’s value. In other words, multifamily complexes should be endorsed in areas with high land values; rents determine construction.

“In well-functioning housing markets, high land values should encourage greater volume of development, especially of higher-density housing types that enable more units to fit onto scarce land,” said co-author Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution.

But that is not the case in California, especially in Los Angeles County: Using newly collected data of land use regulations, Schuetz and Cecile Murray of the University of Chicago analyzed how California’s local governments regulate apartment development and whether zoning is limiting construction of apartments.

“Our results suggest that California’s metros and other high-cost housing markets may not be adding enough apartments not because of lack of demand, but because many homeowners are opposed to new multifamily development in their communities,” Schuetz said.

In other words: Despite incentives for building to go on a development boom, data shows this isn’t happening—and the culprit could very well be single-family homeowners, who “often seek to limit apartments through restrictive zoning,” Schuetz noted.

In fact, many cities with a costly median rent of over $2,000 per month in 2012 showed no permits for multifamily complexes; these cities also had the most zoning restrictions. The Los Angeles County cities of La Canada Flintridge, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates, and Westlake Village issued zero multifamily housing permits between 2013 and 2017.

But why are they so against it?

Schuetz claims many things: These owners often feel that multifamily complexes will cause a loss of value in their own property, while some even claim that the government ends up having to “pay more” for spaces that host family apartments and those costs exceed property tax revenues—all of which, in one way other another, fall into both subtle and direct forms of classism and racism.

“The reality is that homeowners’ antipathy towards multifamily development also reflects racial and economic attitudes,” Schuetz said. “Renters are, on average, lower-income, younger and less white than homeowners.”

This vitriol toward multifamily construction isn’t just found within the feelings of community members; it is bolstered and favored directly through the way in which we zone.

The vast majority of land, across California cities, is handed to single-family homes. While most cities reported that less than a quarter of their land is zoned for multifamily construction, two-thirds of all cities give over half of their land to single-family homes; non-residential uses even exceeded these numbers.

Graphic courtesy of the Brookings Institution.

Long Beach is no exception: well over half of the city’s land is zoned for single-family homes until 2040.

Two other contributing factors to this lack of building are also attached intimately to zoning.

For one, most jurisdictions keep apartment complexes to under four stories. This was reflected in the controversial battle and eventual passing of Long Beach’s own land use element, the document that dictates what can be built where. Proposals for six-story apartment complexes were whittled down to four or less across many East Long Beach neighborhoods.

Secondly, how many units are permitted to be built on a given parcel of land varies city to city. Over 800 acres of Long Beach land were dropped in density after the proposed land use element faced criticism from single-family homeowners.

This overall restriction leads to less developers applying for permits, as they anticipate dissent from municipalities. The report acknowledges that cities that receive more applicants also process them faster; cities with low amounts of applicants wishing to make multifamily complexes take longer.

The implications are quite simple: Zoning, far more than higher rents, incentivizes developers—and cities need to accommodate broader zoning laws if they want to begin to see its way out of this crisis.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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