Los Angeles Times, 1988

Los Angeles Times, 1988

Growth controls

In 1972, the City of Petaluma in Sonoma County passed the first voter-approved growth control initiative in California, restricting new housing permits to no more than 500 dwellings per year. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. “Although we assume that some persons desirous of living in Petaluma will be excluded under the housing permit limitation and that, thus, the Plan may frustrate some legitimate regional housing needs, the Plan is not arbitrary or unreasonable.” (The court held that excluding people and harming regional housing goals was legal because the police powers of local zoning are broad and the city’s growth controls were rationally related to objectives like preserving the rural character of the town).

Other local jurisdictions passed laws or initiatives with similar goals. A 2001 study identified a number of different types of growth controls that had been adopted in the state:

  • Annual limits on total building permits,
  • Annual limits on residential units authorized,
  • Annual limits on multifamily dwelling units built,
  • Policies linking local residential growth rates to some formula or external growth rate, such as that in the county, region, or state,
  • Formal policies prescribing a local population ceiling, and
  • Moratoriums on building permits, water connections, or sewer hook-ups

A related policy tool that cities use to temporarily limit new development is the interim ordinance. Jurisdictions can pass 45 day bans on the issuance of new building permits or other approvals, and then extend the ban for approximately two years. Cities apply these interim measures when they are developing permanent rules or restrictions. The map at the top of the post, for example, shows that when the City of Los Angeles was in the midst of a slow-growth political upheaval in the late 1980s, nearly 40 interim control measures were in effect covering different types of development in parts of the city.

State code requires that interim controls be accompanied and justified by “legislative findings that there is a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety, or welfare, and that the approval of additional.. permits [etc]”  The law specifically calls out interim restrictions on “the development of projects with a significant component of multifamily housing,” requiring local findings that new housing development would have “a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety.” 

These growth controls don’t necessarily prevent more homes than general zoning rules and planning procedures do. But since they are blanket (and blatant) quotas and bans on more housing, they are worth addressing for their real impacts and their anti-housing symbolism. The state could:

1. Require specific findings on an adverse impact on public health and safety for permanent growth controls impacting multi-family housing.
2. Ban permanent growth controls and temporary controls on housing when and where certain housing shortage triggers are met (low vacancy rates, high rent increases, etc)

City formation and annexation

If you follow housing issues in California, you may have read about (or testified on!) the proposal to build 4400 homes in the Baylands site close to San Francisco. Most of these homes will probably never be constructed, because the area is part of a small town named Brisbane that is reluctant to allow a large residential development. Even in the midst of a housing crisis,boundaries matter, because cities or counties (in the case of unincorporated land) control what homes are allowed where.

Residents have formed, merged, split off and abandoned cities for many reasons. Writing in 1952 about the motives for city incorporation, authors of a UCLA report noted that “Most important, perhaps, has been the wish to improve or to obtain local services- roads, sewers, water, and property protection. Some towns were temperance-minded and desired to liquidate the “saloon element”; others had different types of nuisances in mind. A fear of engulfment through annexation by a large neighboring city, such as Los Angeles or Alhambra, spurred some areas to independence and self-government. One or two communities wished simply to remain as they were, and incorporated in self-defense to prevent excessive subdivision or possible zoning by the County.”

Some cities were formed to favor non residential uses, or to ‘protect’ low-density residences. Vernon and City of Industry are examples of industrial-zoned cities. One of my favorite examples of anti-housing cities was Dairy Valley, incorporated in 1956 to protect feedlots and dairies (and renamed Cerritos in 1964 after cow-protecting zoning was abandoned). Mike Davis wrote about the incorporation of exclusive suburbs in City of Quartz.


After world war II, the widely copied “Lakewood plan” by which a new city would contract with the county for many public services, spurred a new wave of incorporations. To deal with the challenges of new cities and overlapping municipal and special district boundaries, the State established Local Agency Formation Commissions in each county in 1963. They have a mandate to encourage orderly boundaries and discourage sprawl. To help address the housing crisis, the state could:

1. Give LAFCOs a mandate to help meet regional housing needs.
2. Give LaFCOs power to adjust city boundaries (without requiring elections) if cities are resisting adding housing in appropriate locations. (For example, transfer the Baylands Site from Brisbane to San Francisco if San Francisco pledges to allow housing there).

Expanding the powers of LAFCOs raise the same issues mentioned in the first installment of this series regarding regional planning: what entities are suited to make regional decisions, and who do they represent?