Editorial: Los Angeles will soon have a plan to start solving its housing crisis

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Construction workers on Friday, March 20, 2020, were busy building a new apartment building in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Andrew Khouri / Los Angeles Times)
An apartment building goes up in L.A.'s Palms neighborhood in March 2020. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s possible that 2021 will be the year that California begins to end the state’s housing crisis.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills that effectively eliminated single-family zoning in most of California, making it easier to build more housing in more neighborhoods. That was a big deal because restrictive zoning has been a major constraint on housing production for decades.

But there is an even more important change underway across the state. Every eight years, cities and counties have to produce a voluminous document, called a Housing Element, that demonstrates how they will plan and zone for enough development to house their fair share of the state’s growing population. Cities aren’t required to construct the homes, but they have to adopt laws and policies that make it easier for the private sector to build market-rate and affordable housing.

That process is happening now, and it’s been radically changed — in a good way.

In recent years, state lawmakers have added teeth to the “fair-share” housing law, and we’re starting to see the effects. Southern California, for example, will have to plan for 1.3 million new homes by 2029. That’s three times more homes than the region had to plan for in the last cycle. The higher target is designed both to meet population growth and address the region’s failure to build enough housing over the last few decades, which has created the shortage that is driving up rents and home prices.

The state also now requires localities to promote fair housing. For the first time, Housing Elements have to analyze housing inequality to reduce segregation and address the lack of jobs, economic development, and amenities in Black, Latino and lower-income communities.

It’s been challenging for cities to adjust to the new requirements, but Los Angeles gets a gold star. The city’s proposed Housing Element is honest, ambitious and has the potential to make L.A. a more equitable and affordable city.

The plan includes policies to help boost housing construction, reduce homelessness and protect tenants at risk of displacement. As part of the Housing Element, the city must identify properties that could be developed for 455,000 new units of housing, including nearly 185,000 units for lower-income residents. That’s five times the number of new homes that the city had to plan for during the last Housing Element period from 2012 to 2019. Then the city has three years to rezone properties to accommodate the housing.

On paper, Los Angeles has enough properties under existing zoning to accommodate all 455,000 new units of housing needed. But in practice, the vast majority of that theoretical housing will never actually be built. Perhaps a property is on a hillside too steep to easily build, or the property owner has no desire to sell to a developer, or a project on the site just wouldn’t pencil out. For decades, cities have been required to make room for more housing, but they’ve adopted paper housing plans that have no basis in reality. That’s one major reason why California has a housing shortage.

L.A. city staff partnered with the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley to analyze the likelihood that potential housing sites would be developed. The results were sobering. Under the city’s existing zoning and land-use rules, L.A. could expect to build about 45,000 units over the next eight years. That’s only 10% of the city’s target.

Moreover, if L.A. stuck with the status quo, it would only continue patterns of segregation that have concentrated affordable housing in lower-income, lower-resourced communities. That’s a violation of state law, which requires that cities promote fair housing in their Housing Elements.

Los Angeles will never become a more affordable and equitable city by continuing to hold onto the same land-use and development policies of the last 40 years. Angelenos pay more of their income on housing, live in more overcrowded conditions, and have the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness of any city in the country, according to a city staff report. These conditions place a disproportionate burden on women, the poor and communities of color.

This is the moment for Los Angeles to embrace change, and the Housing Element sets the stage for a much needed transformation.

The plan commits the City Council to major rezoning and pro-development policies. Those could include expanding the successful Transit-Oriented Communities incentive that allows developers to construct bigger buildings if they include affordable units. The city will also consider allowing religious institutions to build affordable housing on their land; making it easier to convert commercial buildings into housing; and allowing housing on “P zones,” or parking zones currently off-limits to anything other vehicle storage.

The city still has to ensure well-off communities make room for more apartments and affordable housing. Areas like Sherman Oaks, Brentwood, Venice and Westwood would see little rezoning under the current plan, advocates warn.

The Housing Element also commits the city to strengthening tenant protections and the preservation of existing affordable housing. That’s important— development cannot lead to displacement and gentrification.

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the Housing Element today, and the City Council will take it up in the coming weeks. City Council President Nury Martinez has pushed the planning and housing departments to be bold in this Housing Element, which is an encouraging sign of progress.

The next two years will reveal whether the City Council and the next mayor are serious about solving the city’s housing crisis. They’ll have to rezone properties and adopt policies that put more apartments, more affordable housing and more density in neighborhoods that, historically, have opposed change.

Los Angeles should get credit for drafting a responsible Housing Element, while other cities are trying to play shell games with their plans. We expect the governor and his administration to hold cities accountable.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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