A Pro-housing Policy Agenda for Los Angeles
The Time to Fix Housing is Now
2020 is the year that changed everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 200,000 Americans, caused millions of job losses, and put hundreds of thousands of our neighbors at risk of losing their homes. Severe wildfires across California destroyed homes and demonstrated the terrible, growing impact of climate change on ordinary life. And nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice showed how far we still have to go to become a country that is free of hate and discrimination.
All this happened as Los Angeles continues to experience a severe housing crisis. For decades, we haven’t built enough homes to meet our needs. This has caused fast-rising rents and home prices, creating financial pressure on households and putting homeownership out of reach. Some families have responded by moving to exurban areas, enduring long commutes and worsening carbon emissions. Others have left Southern California altogether, including many lower-income households and communities of color. Worst of all, over 66,000 of our neighbors have become homeless across L.A. County.
We can’t wait any longer to fix the housing crisis. More homes benefit all Angelenos, through lower rents, greater access to jobs and good schools, less car dependence, and a stronger economy. But more homes also address the challenges that 2020 has put front and center.
We know that COVID-19 spreads when people crowd into one home; building more homes will reduce household overcrowding, while also creating jobs and sparking economic recovery. More homes in urban centers, near transit and jobs, support low-carbon living and give people an alternative to housing in wildfire zones. More homes in exclusionary neighborhoods will break down barriers and ensure that Black, Latino, and Asian Americans are no longer excluded from housing opportunities and no longer experience displacement. This last point especially merits additional discussion.
Promoting Racial Justice and Equity
The housing shortage is rooted in a long history of racist practices. Systemic racism, both the legacy of explicitly racist policies and an ongoing system of implicitly racist ones, hurts people of color and makes our communities more segregated. Historically, federal, state, and local governments have used housing policy to exclude people of color, and these policies continue to negatively impact people today.
People of color are also especially vulnerable to the soaring costs caused by the housing shortage. Deliberate policies have denied many ethnic groups, particularly Black families, access to housing wealth and opportunity. These policies continue to the present day in the form of modern exclusionary housing policies.
Recognizing this shameful history is an essential first step; but we need to take ambitious action to right historical wrongs. Abundant Housing LA’s advocacy prioritizes racial justice and equity in our community, guided by the following goals:
- Opening up exclusionary cities and neighborhoods, so that Americans of all backgrounds are welcome everywhere in Los Angeles County
- Ensuring that access to quality homes, schools, parks, and public resources is never denied due to a household’s race, religion, or ethnicity
- Investing in historic Black, Latino, and Asian communities to prevent displacement of longtime residents, ensuring that people can stay in their communities and enjoy a high quality of life
- Expanding opportunities for homeownership and generational wealth building among communities of color
- Ensuring that communities of color have equal access to healthy neighborhoods, where climate change readiness is high and impact from vehicle emissions is low
- Fully including communities of color in the decision-making process around the future of housing policy and neighborhood land use
There are many compelling reasons to build a future with abundant housing for everyone. But what reforms will get us there?
The Core Four
Abundant Housing LA advocates for a robust slate of housing policy reforms, and encourages cities across Los Angeles County to fix the housing crisis by adopting these ideas. These policy concepts fit into four categories, which we call the Core Four:
- Legalize more homes
- Make it easier to build homes
- Fund affordable housing and end homelessness
- Strengthen renters’ rights
The Core Four are like columns that support a house. All four need to be strong for the house to stand. The house also needs a solid foundation; in our case, the foundation is the goal of promoting racial justice and equity.
Similarly, while cities should adopt as many pro-housing reforms as possible, it is also important to implement some policies from each of the four categories, in order to solve the housing crisis while promoting racial justice and equity.
The Los Angeles region’s cities and neighborhoods are defined by exclusion. Exclusionary zoning bans duplexes, apartments, and subsidized affordable housing in most “residential” areas. This makes housing more expensive, maintains patterns of racial and class segregation, and fuels neighborhood displacement by shifting housing demand to lower-income areas. We want to end exclusionary zoning and apartment bans, especially in wealthy, high-opportunity neighborhoods.
Abundant Housing’s FAIR Plan offers a blueprint for how the City of Los Angeles can encourage more apartments citywide.
- Allow multifamily homes in all commercially-zoned areas, near job centers, and near transit, especially in high-income areas. This will increase the number of homes that can be built in high-demand areas, many of which currently allow very little new housing.
- End exclusionary single-family zoning. Allow at least four units on all residential parcels (allow at least eight units if one is affordable to lower-income households). Upzoning single-family zoned areas can reduce displacement, since single-family homes are more likely than multifamily homes to be owner-occupied. Also, eliminate land use regulations, like low floor area ratios and maximum lot coverage, that make small multifamily housing infeasible, and update building codes to encourage micro-units, co-living, and innovative construction methods.
- Embrace ambitious housing growth targets throughout the Los Angeles region, and fairly distribute new housing capacity across neighborhoods. Abundant Housing’s FAIR Plan would allocate most new housing to high-income areas, job clusters, and transit corridors, helping the City of Los Angeles accommodate 450,000 more homes by 2030.
- Eliminate on-site parking requirements citywide. Instead, introduce on-site parking maximums near transit, and levy a per-space fee on all parking lots and garages. This will make housing production more feasible and reduce housing costs.
- Adopt density bonus incentive programs, where new apartment projects include some affordable units for lower-income residents. In return, these projects would get to include extra units above the normal zoning limits. L.A.’s Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) program is an excellent density bonus program that deserves to be expanded and made permanent. Similar programs should be introduced throughout L.A. County.
- Create more housing for lower-income households in high-income neighborhoods. When cities identify sites for housing that is affordable to lower-income families, they should prioritize walkable, well-resourced areas near transit, jobs, schools, and parks. This will give more families access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods and reduce racial segregation within cities.
- Build housing away from wildfire danger zones. While climate change makes California’s wildfire season more destructive each year, housing bans in urban areas encourage sprawl development near future wildfires. An urban growth boundary would stop development in very high fire hazard severity zones, and should be paired with policies that encourage housing growth in safe urban areas.
- Implement pro-housing, holistic anti-displacement policies that apply citywide alongside ending exclusionary zoning and increasing new housing production. We recommend higher public investment in lower-income areas, stronger renter protections, and expanded funding for rent assistance and homeownership opportunities. This will take displacement pressure off of existing renters and lower-income communities.
Complex administrative and political approval processes make it difficult, time-consuming and expensive to build housing. This discourages home building and adds to the cost of housing, and also creates opportunities for “pay-to-play” situations and outright corruption. Wealthy homeowners frequently use their political influence to block housing, including affordable and permanent supportive housing, through this flawed approval process.
- 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.
- Empower city governments to approve housing. Individual city councilmembers frequently have significant influence over project approvals and land use changes in their districts. This invites corruption and makes it easy for housing opponents to block new housing. Instead of individual councilmembers holding sole discretionary authority in their districts, city councils should make housing policy collectively, and allow planning departments to implement policy without political interference.
- 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.
- Take action on climate change by reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This will make it easier to build homes in urban infill locations, which reduces carbon emissions and sprawl development in wildland areas, and will reduce housing opponents’ ability to tie up housing projects in years of litigation.
- Remove barriers to housing at the ballot box. Some cities require a voter referendum before housing above a certain height or size can be built, and the state constitution requires a voter referendum before public housing can be built. Many of these barriers were created with exclusionary and racist intent. Housing approvals should be settled through local and state laws, not referendums that give too much power to housing opponents.
- Improve public outreach methods for decision-making on housing. Ask residents how to meet housing targets rather than asking whether homes should be allowed, and ensure that planning departments receive community feedback that accurately reflects the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the city and neighborhood. Random sampling of residents is the gold standard. Also, hold outreach events outside of standard work hours and provide childcare at events, which will ensure that all members of the public can participate.
Los Angeles County has a deficit of over 700,000 homes that are affordable to households with low incomes, a situation that accelerates neighborhood displacement and pushes Angelenos into homelessness. Addressing this significant need requires $100 billion annually in new local, state, and federal funding for the production and preservation of enough affordable homes to meet cities’ below-market-rate housing growth targets under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. New affordable housing should be situated throughout a city’s neighborhoods, both in high-cost, high-opportunity areas, as well as in disadvantaged neighborhoods where public investment has been insufficient and displacement risk is high.
- Make rent subsidies available to all lower-income households. Eviction, displacement, and homelessness often happen when tenants aren’t able to afford their rent. Housing Choice Vouchers (“Section 8”) provide rental assistance from the federal government to lower-income households. Since the program is underfunded, nearly 75% of rent-burdened households that qualify for assistance don’t receive it. Fully funding the Housing Choice Voucher program would improve housing stability for lower-income households and provide greater access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.
- Fight displacement by helping tenants buy their homes. Homeownership is a strong defense against displacement. “Opportunity to Purchase” programs can help lower-income tenants and community organizations purchase a rental property and convert it into a co-op. This requires substantial funding for mortgage down payments and capital improvements. If properly funded, this could successfully preserve affordable housing and provide greater housing stability.
- Introduce a progressive tax on property sales. A land value transfer tax could raise over $1 billion annually in the City of Los Angeles, and would primarily be paid by higher-income homeowners and business owners who are selling property.
- Reform Proposition 13 and tax property owners fairly. California taxes property based on its value at the time of purchase, rather than on its value today. Additionally, homeowners can deduct mortgage interest on their state income tax. These policies provide a huge, unjustified tax break for longtime homeowners. California should eliminate the mortgage interest rate deduction, and tax property based on its market value with a reasonable phase-in period.
- Produce housing on city and county owned land. Local governments should donate parking lots and other public land to affordable housing nonprofits and community land trusts, which will reduce the cost of producing affordable housing. Local governments should also lease other parking lots to private-sector builders, in return for an annual payment. This will create more housing overall, while also generating a stable revenue stream that can directly finance affordable housing production.
- Introduce regional congestion pricing. By requiring motorists to pay a fee to drive into crowded areas when traffic is heavy, Los Angeles could substantially reduce traffic while raising billions for affordable housing near transit.
- Charter a California public bank. This bank would be able to lend to municipalities and housing nonprofits, as well purchase municipal debt. California’s $100 billion in cash deposits could be leveraged to generate funds for affordable housing construction.
- Introduce taxes on vacant homes and lots, demolition of existing housing units, and on home-sharing/short-term rentals. In addition to providing revenue to support affordable housing, this would discourage housing demolition and encourage the development of vacant properties.
Housing scarcity is particularly harmful to lower-income renters, who are frequently at risk of fast-rising rents and eviction. In addition to building and funding more homes, Los Angeles must actively enforce and expand renters’ legal rights, to ensure that renters can access stable, affordable homes and to prevent neighborhood displacement in lower-income communities.
- Increase compensation and support for tenants that are displaced by redevelopment. Before a rental unit can be taken off the market for redevelopment, the property owners should have to provide tenant compensation far beyond existing law. This would include a “right of return” after redevelopment, at the same rent as before, and rental assistance during redevelopment. Tenants should also have the option to negotiate a fair, voluntary buyout agreement in lieu of a right to return.
- Provide free legal counsel to all renters. This will reduce evictions by ensuring that tenants are well-represented in housing court, and encourage landlords to settle disputes with tenants without taking legal action.
- Limit evictions to “just cause” scenarios, like nonpayment of rent or property destruction. This prevents landlords from using sudden, sharp rent increases to push out tenants.
- Create a citywide streamlined application and notification system for affordable housing units. The current process is burdensome; information about new affordable units is difficult to find, and there’s no clear process for applying for these units. A simple notification and application system will expand access to new affordable housing.
- Create a comprehensive online registry of all rental properties. This will make it much easier for cities to communicate information to tenants and landlords, and to proactively enforce tenants’ rights laws.
- Track and prosecute slumlords who repeatedly violate housing codes and tenant rights. By tracking and prosecuting repeat offenders, cities can encourage better housing conditions and bar the worst slumlords from owning and managing apartments.
Policies in this category include AB 1482 (anti-rent gouging), SB 329 (landlords can’t refuse Section 8 voucher holders), and SB 330 (requires one-for-one replacement of demolished rent-controlled units).