This piece is a joint collaboration of Luis de la Rosa and Patrick Dexter at Pacific Urbanism and Anthony Dedousis at Abundant Housing LA.
Abundant Housing LA and Pacific Urbanism are both committed to creating a more affordable, diverse, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable Los Angeles. So we were excited to read Gloria Ohland’s recent article on behalf of MoveLA, “What Recovery Looks Like: Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity”.
MoveLA lays out a powerful argument for encouraging lots of multifamily, mixed-income housing production along Los Angeles County’s major streets, where bus and rail access can be found. Ohland’s proposal for expanding access to housing along transit corridors makes a crucial connection between housing and transportation, and her call for housing production that does not lead to displacement should be a vital aspect of any housing policy. Furthermore, she keenly identifies existing commercial development along boulevards as being “ready for reinvention and redevelopment” into mixed-use properties, especially given the long-term shift towards online shopping.
With Los Angeles reeling from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and our severe housing shortage reaching a crisis point, this is an opportune moment to think strategically about how to build a prosperous, affordable city that works for everyone. It’s great to see MoveLA, a well-established transit advocacy organization whose achievements include the successful spearheading of the Measure M transportation funding campaign, contributing bold ideas. We’d love to see the Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity proposal become a reality.
With that said, we are concerned that limiting major housing production only to major boulevards would be inadequate to truly address L.A.’s lack of affordable housing near jobs and transit. Such a strategy would leave a significant amount of our city’s land on the table, and would probably not produce housing at the rate needed to dig our way out of our affordability crisis. Nor would it fully address our city’s history of racial segregation and exclusion, and would not open up L.A.’s opportunity areas to residents of all incomes and backgrounds. Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity is necessary, but not sufficient.
In calling for the development of low- and moderate-income housing primarily on commercial corridors, Ohland’s article cites a 2006 SCAG report stating that all of Southern California’s projected population growth could be accommodated by concentrating housing production in downtowns and commercial strips on just 2% of the region’s land.
But Pacific Urbanism’s research has shown that the situation may be a bit more complicated. While there are advantages to this strategy, commercially zoned land only occupies about 5% of L.A.’s total land area. Leaving the remaining 95% of the city’s land on the table is unlikely to produce housing at the rates our city needs to meet housing targets. Based on the current rate of housing production, as well as the adopted land use densities in Los Angeles, commercial corridors can only be expected to accommodate about 177,000 more units than they currently contain. While this is not insignificant, state law requires Los Angeles to set a goal of building 455,000 new housing units by 2029 or 58,000 per year. If this goal were met, these commercial corridors would be built out in only three years.
Furthermore, there are disadvantages to building apartments exclusively on major boulevards. Arterial roads tend to have heavy vehicle traffic, causing lower air quality and exposure to pollutants, a significant health hazard. Encouraging development in clusters, rather than just along boulevards, is often a better option for neighborhood place-making and walkability. And land and construction costs tend to be highest along major streets: among other things, residential builders are competing with commercial developers for scarce commercially-zoned parcels. This makes it less likely that deed-restricted affordable housing and medium-density residential projects (“missing middle” housing) will be economically feasible.
Fortunately, Los Angeles can combine the Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity proposal with a supplemental option: allow denser development on residentially-zoned parcels near jobs and transit. L.A. has a significant amount of land that is not on commercial corridors: Pacific Urbanism estimates that there is unbuilt capacity for over 1 million units in transit-rich areas, when factoring in the Transit-Oriented Communities density bonus and the state ADU law.
Much of this unbuilt capacity is on parcels that are currently zoned for single-family homes only. Per the 2016 Assessor’s Roll, as well as the TOC boundaries and land use classifications established by the City of Los Angeles, there are nearly 100,000 parcels zoned for single-family housing within the TOC zones alone, which is not surprising given that 75% of L.A.’s residential land forbids the construction of anything other than a detached single-family home. This represents a huge opportunity.
Many high-opportunity neighborhoods, especially on L.A.’s Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, have historically used exclusionary, single-family zoning to avoid adding new housing. This drives up the cost of housing in these areas, limits neighborhoods to residents who can afford a single-family house, and worsens income and racial segregation.
Ending exclusionary zoning in wealthy, high-opportunity neighborhoods would result in significant new apartment production in those areas. This will push down rents, expand housing choice, and take development pressure off of lower-income communities. After all, the lack of housing in high-income areas is a cause of gentrification in the first place (when people are priced out of Westwood, some are likely to relocate to West Adams).
We believe that single-family zoning near transit and jobs should be a thing of the past. Adding medium-density housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods is a good idea, regardless of how the land is zoned today. It would provide residents with new housing options, while also reducing displacement by concentrating redevelopment on owner-occupied homes, rather than existing multifamily rental properties.
Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity is a bold proposal that could change Los Angeles for the better. By also calling for an end to exclusionary zoning in high-opportunity, transit-rich areas, we’re embracing the equity-based spirit of Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity, and helping to ensure that L.A. builds enough homes for everyone, at all levels of affordability.