This article is an update to the previous A Short Introduction to Zoning in Los Angeles. It was written in a time before the rise of the YIMBY movement and its effects on California State Housing Policy.
There’s a fierce debate about the nature of housing going on in the state of California right now. A half a century of encouraging sprawling development has led to a housing shortage near coastal job centers and some of the highest costs of living in the world. The fallout from this has split a chasm between two ideological opposites, those who support more housing development and those who work to keep the status quo. Their fusion point of disagreement comes down to something known as zoning.
Zoning, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a system of laws restricting how particular areas of land can be used and what can be built on the land. Fundamentally, this means that different regions of a city or town will have different rules for what can and cannot be built. Items that are governed by zoning include:
- Use type: What category should a development belong to. The most common ones are residential (house, apartments) commercial (stores, restaurants) and industrial (factories, ports).
- Density: How many units can be built on a given space. Usually applied to residential use types.
- Floor-area ratio: Governs how much of a subdivision can be used by the building. To illustrate, a 1,000 square foot house on a 2,000 square foot lot will have a FAR of 0.50 (1,000 divided by 2,000).
- Height: Determines how tall a building can be. This can be done both in terms of the number of floors as well as in feet.
- Setbacks: Determines how much of a buffer must be left between the building and the property line, particularly from the front, side, and rear. To illustrate, a zoning setback might require 20 ft from the street to the front of the building, 10 ft from the property line to the building sides, and 15 ft from the property line to the back of the building.
- Parking: Determines how many parking spaces the developer must provide as part of the project. In residential uses, it is contingent on the number of houses or apartments. For commercial and industrial used, it is governed by the building’s square footage.
Nothing in the city of Los Angeles is left untouched by zoning. From the Fill in more if I think that it should be more like the original page.
The main zoning use types in the city are classified as R, C, and M, which correspond to residential, commercial, and industrial (with the M standing for manufacturing). In addition, a height suffix will be attached to designate a height district (which govern how tall and large building in that zone can be). To illustrate, a neighborhood coded as R1-2 would signify that the lot is in the R1 zone and height district 2.
Residential zones in Los Angeles can be divided into two primary cases: single-family and multi-family.
As the name suggests, single-family housing is where development is restricted to one house per lot. If a lot is appropriately large, then it may be subdivided into more minute bits so multiple houses (that satisfy the minimum lot size) can be built. This subdivision process is what to the creation of the suburban parts of Los Angeles and the term subdivisions to new housing developments.
Just like what you see in the movies, single-family zoning is the most common zoning type in Los Angeles by a long shot. And the most common type of this is R1 zoning, which specifies a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet (SF). The vast majority of single-family neighborhoods not located in the hills in Los Angeles are zoned for R1.
The other frequent single-family zone types in LA are RA (residential agriculture) and RE (residential estate). The RA zones mandates 17,500 SF lots and permits limited agriculture. RE zones can be found in five zones, RE9, RE11, RE15, RE20, and RE40, with the number signifying the minimum lot size in thousands of square feet (SF). To illustrate, RE20 requires 20,000 SF minimum lots. All of the single-family zones in LA require a minimum of 2 covered parking spaces.
The image shown below is a generalized zoning map of Los Angeles – click to enlargen. Anything in yellow is an R1 or an RE zone, and anything in light green is an RA zone.
As was mentioned before, Los Angeles is near completely dominated by single-family housing, particularly on the Westside, in the Valley, and in Northeast LA. These areas are where the battle over development and displacement are ongoing. There is practically no rent-stabilized housing anywhere in the wealthier yellow and light green areas. These neighborhoods have played a disproportionate role in exacerbating the housing crisis while compromising a majority of the city’s land. The path to solving the housing crisis starts with massive change in these zones.
The next place to focus on is multi-family zones in Los Angeles, signified by the color orange. Here, it is legal to build apartments. Most multi-family zones are classified as RD, R3, R4, and R5, in order of increasing density. In these areas, density is mandated by what is the minimum lot area per apartment. This leads to six levels of RD (Restricted Density), RD6, RD5, RD4, RD3, RD2, and RD1.5, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot area per apartment in thousands of square feet. For example, RD2 requires 2,000 SF of lot area per apartment. R3 requires 800 SF per apartment, R4 requires 400 SF, and R5 requires 200 SF.
RD zones are the most common multi-family zones in LA, followed by R3. That’s where the orange is on the map. R4 is typically found in areas like Koreatown, Hollywood, North Hollywood, and Palms. R5 is found near-exclusively downtown and along Condo Canyon on Wilshire. All multi-family zones require parking at a rate of 1 space per studio, 1.5 spaces per 1 bedroom unit, and 2 spaces per 2+ bedroom unit.
To get a picture of what these look like, RD zones usually look like very small apartment buildings or small lot subdivisions. R3 zones look like dingbats. R4 zones look like podiums. R5 allows for high-rises.
The vast majority of the residential zones in the city are in height districts 1, 1L, 1VL, and 1XL, where L stands for low, VL for very low, and XL for extra-low. For all zones, this means a maximum FAR of 3. For the single-family zones, RD, and R3, these areas allow heights varying from 30’ in height district 1XL to 45’ in height district 1. R4 and R5 vary from 30’ in 1XL to unlimited in 1.
Height districts 2, 3, and 4 allow more height and more FAR, but not more density in terms of the number of apartments. These districts are typically restricted to places like Downtown and Hollywood.
Different places will have different factors to limit the amount of development. To illustrate, a 5,000 SF lot in an R4-1 zone theoretically has no limit on how tall the building can be. That being said, it’s only possible to put 12 apartments on this lot, and with a maximum FAR of 3.0. Resultingly, the maximum size of the building would be 15,000 SF, equal to twelve 1,250 SF apartments.
That being said, a 6,000 SF lot in the RD2-1 zone can have an FAR of 3.0, which would allow up to 18,000 SF of building space. However, only 3 apartments would be allowed on such a lot, and you don’t see many 6,000 SF apartments. If the lot were 50’ wide by 120’ deep, the building footprint available after removing setbacks would be only about 3,000 SF. To get an 18,000 SF building, you’d have to build 6 stories tall, but the maximum height allowed is 45’ – only enough for about 4 stories. This lot is constrained by density and height, but not by FAR.
Accessory Development Units (ADUs) have become a hot topic in the housing world as of late. Ever since their expansion into Los Angeles, ADUs are allowed on properties zoned R-A, R-1, R-2, R-3, R-4, A-1 or A-2 (as well as any other zone which allows single-family residences by right). As of 2020, ADUs have become permitted on multi-family zoned lots as well.
There also a large amount of lesser-known zoning types. RS designates a single-family suburban residential zone, RU
Look at where ADUs are available to develop
Now we know how areas are zoned for housing. But how exactly do we know about how supply should be designated for new housing development?
This where the RHNA process comes in.
RHNA, also known as the Regional Housing Needs Allocation and the Housing Element is a California state mandate that governs how cities in the state must plan for the housing needs of residents no matter what their income level is. This is accomplished by taking in the projected household growth, future vacancy need, and replacement need to determine the existing housing need and share of housing growth. For an illustration, RHNA exorted Los Angeles to approve 36,779 very low, low, and moderate income units from 2013 to 2021 but only stamped 7,283 units!
Although cities are mandated to build more housing, until the passage of the recent California bill SB35 there was no enforcement mechanism. Making matters worse, cities that have “built-out” their capacity for what they already zoned were not required to make any changes in such areas, even if they were economically prosperous and close to job centers/transit. Going forward, RHNA methodology should be updated to increase zone capacity for exclusionary areas and rely less on local inputs.
In addition to residential zones, Los Angeles has Commercial Zones designated for areas where businesses such as restaurants, shops, and offices are centered. These can be found in strips along the major boulevards and business districts of the city such as Downtown, Hollywood, Century City, Playa Vista, and Miracle Mile.
Seven commercial exist in Los Angeles (CR, C1, C1.5, C2, C4, C5, and CM), but C2 is by far the most common. In addition to permitting commercial uses, C2 allows R4 by default, signifying that on the commercial boulevards of the city, apartments at a density of 400 SF of lot area per apartment can be built.
This was a fantastic way to permit denser residential development along commercial boulevards, which usually pair up as good transit corridors. But in the 1980s, a ballot initiative known as Prop U cut the allowable FAR in the C2 zone from 3.0 to 1.5. As a great amount of these properties are already developed with commercial uses and FAR between 0.5 and 1.0, there is no profitability in building apartments in the C2 zone anymore. Thus, these lots are constrained by FAR.
Los Angeles has created two new zones, RAS3 and RAS4, that can be applied on commercial boulevards and help solve the problems caused by Prop U. Such zones correspond to the same exact density permitted by R3 and R4, and have maximum FAR 3.0, but permit for mixes-use development through permitting commercial uses on the first floor. That being said, the RAS3 and RAS4 zones are very rare.
Industrial facilities are located in Manufacturing Zones, shown in grey on the above map. For logistics purposes, they are usually centered in the industrial district near downtown and along freight rail lines. With the decline of heavy industry in the city, these zones have become home to light industrial and commercial uses. The common M zones (M1 and M2) permit for C2 uses, signifying that offices and shops can be built there. That being said, residential uses are prohibited in M zones. To illustrate, the Warner Center is in an M zone.
On occasion, concern has been expressed that allowing commercial development in M zones would result in the destruction of the city’s industrial job base. However, upon further analysis this concern is unfounded. The existence of M zones does not mean that industrial will be present. In fact, numerous M zone uses, such as warehouses, contain low job density in respect to commercial uses. Also keep in mind that since Los Angeles zones a disproportionate amount for residential purposes, allowing commercial development in more parts would actually decrease development pressure on M zones!
More to Come
Hopefully, this post has painted a clear picture of the overview of the main zoning regulations in LA. In a future post, we will uncover the process for obtaining a development approval. Stay tuned, and see you soon!