Every Angeleno knows that homelessness in Los Angeles has been at a crisis point for years. The tragedy on our streets has become even more salient as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and Judge David Carter’s recent order in the case of LA ALLIANCE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, et al. v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, et al. The Judge’s order requires the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County to offer some form of shelter or housing to the entire homeless population of Skid Row by October, although it has been temporarily stayed by an appeals court.
Abundant Housing LA is committed to preventing homelessness in Los Angeles. That’s why we have supported many local and state policies that directly address homelessness, including Measures H and HHH. We have partnered with United Way and Inner City Law Center on a homelessness prevention project, leading to a broader partnership called Our Future Los Angeles. We have also educated our members on the unjust and discriminatory roots of exclusionary zoning and land use rules.
We appreciate that Judge Carter’s order has proposed concrete actions and outlined the long history of discriminatory policies that have contributed to segregation and homelessness in Los Angeles. We share the court’s impatience with avoidable deaths to unhoused Angelenos; with slow delivery of permanent supportive housing; with land use politics that allow a small, vocal minority of affluent residents to block badly-needed affordable homes; and with an artificial housing shortage whose roots lie in decades of downzoning and disinvestment.
Judge Carter is correct that Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis is rooted in its severe lack of housing. The pace of housing production in the City sharply decelerated in the early 1990s, largely due to downzoning and a growing spate of restrictions on multifamily housing production. Just 13% of the City’s housing stock was built within the past 30 years, and since 2013, the City’s housing stock grew just 4%.
Los Angeles’ pace of housing production over the past 30 years is also very low relative to the other large metro areas in the United States.
The housing production that does occur in Los Angeles tends to happen in the few areas where multifamily development is generally legal, such as Downtown, Koreatown, Westlake, and Hollywood. Apartments are banned on over 75% of the City’s residentially-zoned land, a proportion that is even higher in affluent parts of the Westside and San Fernando Valley.
This dynamic perpetuates historic patterns of socioeconomic segregation by blocking housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income households in high-income neighborhoods. Between 2009 and 2018, just 14% of new affordable homes were permitted in high- and highest-resource census tracts, even though these areas make up 35% of the City’s total census tracts. This is because apartments are banned on 76% of the residential parcels in these well-resourced areas, a function of exclusionary zoning. By contrast, 35% of new affordable homes that were permitted during that time were located in census tracts with high segregation and poverty. These areas allow apartments on 82% of their residential parcels.
Housing scarcity has made Los Angeles one of the nation’s most unaffordable housing markets. According to the Los Angeles Times, the average rent rose 65% between 2010 and 2019, to over $2,500. Relative to major American metro areas, Los Angeles has both the highest housing scarcity and the highest housing costs (as a percentage of median earnings).
Study after study have found that high housing costs, rents, and poverty rates, as well as below-average homebuilding, all correlate with high homelessness. Other research has shown that increasing the vacancy rate in the housing market by a small amount can significantly decrease homelessness. A 2019 comparison of the homeless population across American cities shows that Houston and Orlando have the fewest residents per capita experiencing homelessness; these cities also have some of the highest housing production per capita over the past three decades. Over the past decade, Houston’s high housing growth helped hold rents flat despite a population boom, providing a tailwind for its successful “The Way Home” program of coordinated service provision and rapid rehousing. These two factors together led to a 60% decrease in homelessness in Houston.
All this illustrates the need for strong housing growth at all levels of income to solve homelessness in Los Angeles. We strongly agree with Judge Carter’s contention that: “Without major rezoning initiatives, Los Angeles will continue to lack the infrastructure to meet the homelessness crisis and stem growing housing insecurity.” We are also pleased that the order called for an ambitious, transformative approach to Los Angeles’ upcoming housing element update, which requires the City to plan for 456,000 new homes by 2029, including 184,000 that are affordable to lower-income households.
The housing element update is an opportunity to promote greater affordability, equity, and sustainability through housing abundance. We must reform zoning and land use regulations in a way that increases housing choice and availability, improves access to job centers and transit, and affirmatively furthers fair housing. This requires high-opportunity neighborhoods to accommodate more housing opportunities, including those that have historically blocked new housing through exclusionary zoning.
This is why Abundant Housing LA, alongside a coalition of 20 organizations representing the policy, academic, environmental, business, social justice, and affordable housing communities, has called for a housing element update that distributes the citywide 456,000-home goal to each of Los Angeles’ community plan areas in a fair, equitable way.
The City should set housing growth targets for each CPA, based on objective, quantifiable criteria like housing costs, median income, access to transit, proximity to job centers, access to parks and schools, patterns of historical exclusion and segregation, and environmental quality. Neighborhoods that score higher on these dimensions would be assigned higher housing growth targets, in order to collectively achieve the citywide 456,000-home goal. This also aligns with Council President Martinez’s motion calling for “an equitable distribution of new housing around the city based on high quality jobs, transit, and historic housing production.”
This will require major rezoning and land use reforms, especially in more affluent areas where exclusionary zoning blocks new housing opportunities. We recommend the following policies to guide the equitable distribution of rezoning and land use reforms described above:
- Legalize mid-rise and high-rise housing in commercially-zoned areas, near job centers, and near transit, especially in high-income areas. This would promote strong, balanced citywide housing growth and socioeconomic integration.
- Expand the successful Transit-Oriented Communities program geographically. TOC has led to the production or proposal of over 30,000 housing units, of which 21% are affordable to lower-income households. Expanding it to cover transit-rich locations and locations with access to resources, jobs, and amenities, including locations where apartments are currently banned, would create even more affordable housing units in high-income neighborhoods.
- Legalize up to eight homes on residential parcels. Small apartment buildings tend to have lower construction costs, making them naturally affordable without subsidy to many households. Promoting housing growth on R1 parcels can also reduce displacement, since single-family homes are more likely than multifamily homes to be owner-occupied. Sacramento’s City Council recently voted to allow up to four homes on any residential parcel, and Berkeley’s City Council is poised to do the same.
- Exclude parcels that contain RSO housing units from rezoning. Reliance on parcels that contain RSO housing units for new housing growth could accelerate the displacement of lower-income households from many neighborhoods.
- Implement stronger tenant protection policies, such as expanded affordable unit replacement requirements (“no net loss”) for redevelopment of existing rental properties, a “right of return” after redevelopment at the same rent as before, and rental assistance during redevelopment.
- Eliminate on-site parking requirements. This will reduce the cost of housing production and make “missing middle” housing (e.g. fourplexes, bungalow courts) feasible to build.
We also recommend instituting policies that make housing faster and easier to build:
- Make most residential and mixed-use developments “by-right”. Projects in urban infill areas that meet building codes and zoning standards, and are 250 units or less, would be approved without the need for action from elected officials. This would also make it harder to block or delay housing through litigation.
- Expedite approval of deed-restricted affordable and permanent supportive housing. Require building permits to be issued within 90 days, and waive all planning and building fees.
- Empower the City Council to approve housing. Individual city councilmembers have significant influence over project approvals and land use changes in their districts, which can slow down or block new housing. The City Council should instead make housing policy collectively, and allow Planning to implement policy without political interference.
This approach to promoting citywide housing growth would increase housing affordability, improve access to jobs and transit, open up exclusionary neighborhoods to Angelenos of all backgrounds, and foster economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This would also align with the legal requirement for housing elements to affirmatively further fair housing; just last month, the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) issued detailed guidelines that clearly require cities to promote lower-income housing opportunities in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
Additionally, pro-housing reforms are popular with Angelenos. Last year, Planning polled a representative sample of Los Angeles residents, and found that:
- 79% agreed that “the City’s housing strategy should ensure all areas of the City plan for and build their fair share of affordable housing, including my neighborhood.”
- 61% agreed that “Property owners should be able to add up to four additional housing units on their own property.”
- 52% agreed that “Property owners should be able to tear down a single-family home and replace it with a small apartment building.”
- 58% believe that “Reducing regulations to help housing get built faster and at a lower cost” should be a high priority.
- 53% believe that “Allowing small-scale duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in areas currently set-aside for single-family homes” should be a high priority.
A clear majority of Angelenos reject NIMBYism and support more housing opportunities, including in locations where apartments are currently banned.
Finally, building more housing is necessary, but not sufficient, to end homelessness. We must also adopt policies that promote safe, stable permanent housing for Angelenos experiencing housing instability or homelessness:
- Address housing Skid Row residents with urgency, primarily through providing permanent supportive housing.
- The City must not “warehouse” homeless Angelenos into dangerous, crowded dormitory shelters, and must not conduct aggressive “sweeps” of encampments. Urgency as a pretext for criminalization will result in warehousing and the allocation of resources away from permanent housing. We need permanent solutions to homelessness, not “Band-Aid” fixes.
- Accelerate production of permanent supportive housing funded by Proposition HHH, and do not raid Proposition HHH funds for other purposes. The City must create special cross-agency teams to streamline project review, hire third-party contractors to accelerate plan check, and commit to granting permits expeditiously within a maximum number of days.
- Ramp up Project Roomkey, which has stalled in recent months, and hotel/motel acquisitions through Project Homekey. These critical programs provide safe, individual temporary shelter, and create more permanent supportive housing. More of the City’s proposed $1 billion budget for homelessness solutions should be dedicated to these programs.
- Fund the production and preservation of deed-restricted affordable housing. Together with our fellow members of the Our Future LA coalition, we strongly support Senate Bill 679, which would create a countywide affordable housing financing and solutions agency for Los Angeles County.
- Implement a citywide right to counsel program and increase funding for eviction defense. This would give tenants a level playing field in housing court, reducing evictions and preventing households from falling into homelessness.
- Pass the tenant anti-harassment ordinance. This important policy would deter abuse of tenants by dishonest landlords. The ordinance should include Councilmember Raman’s common-sense amendments, which will strengthen the policy.
- Ensure that procedurally, solutions to housing and homelessness prioritize the needs of those most affected by the housing crisis, incorporates equity, and preserves human dignity and rights.
Judge Carter’s order is a long-overdue wakeup call for our city. Our leaders must adopt bold, forward-thinking policies that solve homelessness by addressing its root causes. We must embrace the opportunity to promote strong, citywide affordable housing growth, in order to make housing affordable and abundant for everyone who calls Los Angeles home. Abundant Housing LA stands ready to collaborate with the City on this critical effort.