Last week, we posted a list of questions on land use planning to help LAplus think through a policy agenda.   This post creates a similar outline for inquiry on housing. Due to the severity of the housing crisis in LA and California, housing policy and politics are rapidly shifting fields, with dozens of bills on housing proposed this term in the state legislature, and post-Measure S debates underway in and out of city hall.

Rapid action on housing IS needed. But in the spirit of a new organization, our approach is also:  “Before we advocate, we want to look deeply at existing systems, rules and assumptions.”

The list of questions tracks three broad themes, all tied to the idea that homes are the physical precondition for an open, welcoming city, with space for all Angelenos. First, how can we value housing? Second, how can we encourage and allow more housing, and more types of housing? And third, how we as a society support these homes and assist the people who have the greatest need for housing?

There’s a lot on this list already. I’ll get to a few additional housing-related issues related to design, innovative ownership and building models, and gentrification/displacement when I post two further research outlines on urban innovation and equity.

A. How did Los Angeles become an anti-housing city?

Los Angeles was built in part by boosterism of Southern California as a preeminent site for residences and for home building. From fruit crate labels portraying idyllic bungalows, to innovations in the design and economics of mass subdivision, to experiments in single family residential architecture, to a steady and under-appreciated history of multi-family construction, the LA region used to be place where home building was valued. In the span of a generation, however, housing construction in LA was limited to the point that, among growing metro areas in the US, LA added among the lowest ratio of new homes to additional population. If we approach this question like a crime- who ‘killed’ housing in LA- the answer will be like a twist ending in an Agatha Christie novel in which all of the suspects did it. So- which social trends, ideologies and interest groups contributed to LA’s anti-housing turn? Did they have valid concerns? Did anyone stick up for more housing and why did they lose the debate?  I pose these as the initial set of questions not to blame, but to understand the sources of anti-housing politics and look for openings to overcome anti-housing assumptions, or to address these concerns within a new, more pro-housing consensus.

B. How does our core local and state governance treat housing?

In part in reaction to the post-WW2 era, a new set of legal structures established in California and Los Angeles in the 1970s helped shape planning and housing preservation and construction. My initial thoughts are that many of these new systems had built-in logic that existing housing is a good thing but new housing is problematic. This assumption is worth checking. How do some of the core systems governing land and housing in the state impact housing? I’m thinking in particular of Prop 13 and sequels, CEQA, community planning, the Coastal Act, but there may be others.

C. Should it be easier to build (some types) of new housing?

Research on local government planning processes shows that jurisdictions with complicated and time consuming procedures for approving new housing tend to increase the cost of new homes and to increase residential segregation. The state could override some local planning hurdles by making more housing ‘by-right.’ Governor Brown tried to forward a by-right bill last year that would have removed some local oversight of new housing near transit that included affordable units. It failed, but Senator Scott Wiener has introduced a modified version. What is the best way to accelerate review of proposed housing? Is it wise to prioritize buildings with affordable units and/or prevailing wages? Or is my LAplus colleague Mott Smith correct in warning of the risks of a “two-tiered regulatory regime (one pathway functional, but only available to projects with income-restricted units; and one non-functional, but available to everyone”? In the City of LA, the threshold for project review that kicks in CEQA review was set at 50 units or 50,000 square feet in settlement of an anti-development lawsuit. Could this threshold be raised- or changed so that environmental review applies in ecologically sensitive areas?

D. How can we create more ‘space’ for homes?

Both physical geography and zoning can constrain or expand our ability to add homes in the LA region, but we have more control over zoning. As early as the 1920s, planners in Los Angeles expressed concerned that the city was ‘over-zoned.’ Because much of LA was zoned for apartments or commercial uses, the theoretical population of the city was much higher than the actual population. Over time, more of the city was rezoned so that only single family homes were allowed and the size of apartments and commercial buildings were limited. Community plan updates, slow-growth ballot initiatives and lawsuits further downzoned LA. Upzoing- increasing the number of housing units (or buildable space, some of which can be used for homes) would require re-writing plans. As the city of LA moves to update all 35 community plans within 6 years, what are paths to allow more space for housing? Should this be handled at the community plan level, or is there a parochial interest embedded in local planning that tends to resist adding space? Can the general plan set a citywide goal for upzoning and/or designate growth areas? Is it better to focus growth near transit via specific plans? LA is required to make space for anticipated population growth through a state and regional housing needs assessment. This requirement tends to be too low because it does not take past underbuilding into account. Is there a way the state can adjust future requirements to help address local housing shortages?         

E. How should we balance preservation and construction?

Preservation of existing buildings helps protect historically significant structures, save resources by extending the life of existing buildings, and protects older, more affordable housing. In the City of LA, historic-cultural landmarking of individual sites and establishment of Historic Preservation Overlay Zones for neighborhoods or portions of neighborhoods establish rules that make it harder to demolish or substantially change existing buildings. The city’s rent stabilization ordinance and state and local rules requiring 1 for 1 replacement of existing rent-stabilized/  affordable dwellings give some protections to buildings that may not be historically significant, but that are important as lower-cost housing. What is the proper balance between these preservation goals and allowing more new construction and modification of the existing built environment, both to add housing and to let LA evolve? Should HPOZs be limited in size, or limited if they are close to transit? Can LA build upon its successful adaptive reuse ordinance? Can transfer of ‘air rights’ be expanded so that when a smaller existing building is preserved, the unbuilt space on that lot can be used elsewhere in the city? Are we putting too much of our residential zoned land off limits and preserving too many low-quality low-rise apartments, forcing new homes onto more polluted and noisy commercial/industrial areas? What polices can make it more feasible to build on top of existing buildings, or to replace older, affordable units and also allow enough new homes to make projects feasible?

F. What cities can we look to for pro-housing policies?

Los Angeles is not the only place with expensive housing. In thinking about ways to help expand housing choice and to reduce the negative impacts of a housing crisis, where can we look for policy ideas to consider, adopt or adapt? To other high cost west coast cities that emphasize tenant protections and prioritize deeded affordable housing over market rate homes, like San Francisco or Santa Monica? Cities where it is easier to build and rebuild, like Tokyo and Houston? Places with track records of using public resources for high quality social housing, like Vienna and Amsterdam? Cities with stronger metropolitan planning like Paris and Toronto? It is sometimes frustrating to see housing policy in LA primarily reference expensive cities. Ideally we can learn from these places how to cope with housing shortages and rent burdens, but also learn to avoid their mistakes by looking to growing cities with lower housing costs.

G. Are there past more-affordable ‘building cultures’ in LA we can revive or learn from?

At certain points in the history of Los Angeles, building cultures evolved to produce housing types that were affordable to low and middle income residents. Howard Davis defines the culture of building as “the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, procedures, and habits that surrounds the building process in a given time and place.”   These building cultures shape how structures are financed, regulated, constructed, inhabited and used. They tend to produce a set of recognizable, vernacular building types (such as, for example, single family ranch houses, courtyard apartments, dingbat apartments, low-rise public housing developments, mid-rise condos above ground-level retail, etc) Are any of these building cultures still relevant? Why did they fade away?  Are they able produce affordable housing today? If not, do they suggest policies or practices that could help unlock modern affordable building cultures?  Los Angeles affordable building cultures/ types that may be worth exploring include:
    •    rooms to let
    •    house courts
    •    self built houses
    •    duplexes
    •    single room occupancy buildings
    •    legal and illegal second units
    •    accumulative housing
    •    subdivision of large single family homes to multi-unit apartments
    •    merchant-built subdivisions of single family houses
    •    living space above shops
    •    temporary war-time housing
    •    public housing
    •    low-rise speculative apartments
    •    mobile homes
    •    deed-guaranteed affordable housing funded by CRA and/or tax credits
    •    incentive or inclusionary zoning affordable housing

H. How can we encourage innovation in housing construction?

As we look to other cities and LA’s past, we should also encourage new ways of living and building. Home building is (for the most part) a low-productivity industry that uses old methods and invests little in research and development. Can public policy encourage or allow more innovation, efficiency (and ideally) lower cost construction methods? If policy is not the only obstacle, what contests,  exhibitions and investments can help spur better home building methods?

I. Can inclusionary zoning and density bonuses work for integration and/or affordable housing production?

Inclusionary zoning policies, which require market rate developers to incorporate some deeded affordable units in new buildings, have been one of the tools for generating affordable housing for more than 40 years. IZ for rental housing is currently illegal in the City of Los Angeles due to a lawsuit by developer Palmer/Sixth Street Properties, although a state bill to remove limits on rent control could overturn that ruling. Meanwhile, state density bonuses (which allow more market rate uits to be constructed if some affordable units re included) are used in Los Angeles and the city will soon implement more aggressive density bonuses near transit as a result of Measure JJJ. It may be useful to separate two impacts of IZ. Does it produce a significant amount of affordable units? Does it advance residential integration? If there is a positive social impact, should developers bear the cost, or should society as a whole (through density bonuses, tax credits, land, direct payments etc)? If the performance of IZ is underwhelming, should LA look instead to more direct forms of production/subsidy for affordability?

J. Does Los Angeles need more market rate housing?

During debates over development, it is common to see reference to "luxury housing," "speculative housing" and other epithets attached to homes that are built to be sold or rented. How much of the housing build in LA is and was built for sale or rent for profit? Who lives in this housing? Does Los Angeles need more market rate housing? How does additional market rate housing impact housing costs? How does additional market rate housing impact lower-income residents?

K.  Can LA effectively use public land for social housing?

The passage of measure HHH to fund permanent supportive and affordable housing construction and the release of the first interactive map of city-owned properties gives Los Angeles a chance to plan how public sites can be used for housing. From an initial set of 12 underused public parcels, the city is moving forward to negotiate development on 9 parcels, seek proposals for modular/prefab housing on one, and sell two parcels to fund housing elsewhere. This experience can hopefully inform and help scale up creative use of public land to reduce the cost of housing construction. How will LA be evaluating these projects? Are they best used for 100% affordable homes or mixed-income with market rate helping subsidize affordable? Many of the initial proposed sites have already encountered local opposition; is there a way to fast-track projects on public land?

L. How should we raise money to subsidize low-income households and/or housing?

To address high rent burden and overcrowding, LA County needs more than 550,000 additional homes affordable to lower income residents. With per unit new construction costs rising to approximately $400,000 and funding for affordable housing shrinking in recent years, local jurisdictions are pursuing their own local sources of money. Measure HHH uses a parcel tax to fund new affordable housing. LA city has also proposed an impact fee on new market rate development to generate money for affordable housing. Is it wise to charge new home construction to fund affordable housing, or does this undercut the goal? Why do cities use impact fees for affordable housing rather than broader based taxes? Are there another potential sources of revenue for affordability?

M. What are the best ways to use affordable housing funds?

However jurisdictions raise money for affordable housing, how should it be spent to help the most people? As mentioned above, it is expensive to build new deeded affordable housing, but construction increases supply (and local public funds can leverage more grants and tax credits for construction.) Should LA City and other cities spend more on strategies that are less costly per unit of housing by focusing on preservation in addition to new construction? For example: buy existing rent stabilized units and convert them to permanently affordable homes managed by non-profits, pay owners of apartment buildings to renew affordability covenants that will end soon, assist in establishing community land trusts.  Would more investments in housing vouchers to residents rather than in buildings be effective? Is assistance in homeownership effective in helping low-income households build assets?

N.  Do tenants’ rights need to be modified or strengthened?

When vacancy rates are low and rents are high, losing housing through eviction or any other reason creates severe hardship. Tenant rights in California are relatively protective, and the city of LA’s rent stabilization law sets additional limits on evictions from pre-1978 apartments. But owners have an incentive to evict or induce move-outs when market rents are significantly higher than under rent stabilization, and LA’s large immigrant population may be particularly vulnerable to pressures from landlords.  Should the current balance of tenant- landlord rights and duties be changed? Would expanded information for and legal assistance to tenants help enforce existing rights?

O. Should rent control be preserved, modified, or replaced?

Under state law, LA’s rent stabilization ordinance cannot be extended to buildings build after 1978, and owners can raise rents to market rate when a tenant vacates a unit. A bill to eliminate these state limits on rent control makes it an opportune time to consider the benefits and costs of rent control. If cities have more local control on this issue, would it be best to:
    •    keep rent stabilization as is
    •    strengthen by eliminating vacancy control and/or applying to all apartments, even new ones
    •    modify it to apply to apartments 30 (or so) years or older rather keeping the 1978 cut-off
    •    modify it to apply to apartments 25 or 30 years old but then phase out for buildings 50 or 60 years or older- mimicking the cost curve of filtering- the term for the tendency of housing to get cheaper as it ages, then more expensive as it becomes old enough to be ‘historic’
    •    compress it to require multi-year rent-stabilized housing contracts rather than permanent rental tenure
    •    eliminate it