SoCal housing kept unaffordable by strict zoning laws

Downtown Los Angeles and its surrounding residential areas. Tuxyso/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past 100 years, Southern California has grown to become what it is today – one of the most heavily populated and recognizable megalopolises in the world. In particular, Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs have attracted people of all economic classes.

For housing in Los Angeles, the demand has outpaced the supply as the city has grown. According to LA Family Housing, the average income in Los Angeles County is only about half of that needed to be able to comfortably rent a 2-bedroom apartment. The average resident spends about 47% of their income on rent alone.

“When you get into metropolitan areas like Southern California, then housing becomes very unaffordable,” said Abhishek Tiwari, an urban planning lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona. “It is not sufficient to rent a place, and it’s nowhere near sufficient to buy a place. So if income is not sufficient to rent a place, buying is usually even more unaffordable.”

The lack of affordable housing is mostly caused by long-standing laws, not necessarily developers’ hesitance to build denser housing. 

Zoning laws are laws imposed by city councils that set strict boundaries for what type of housing can be built in certain areas. In most of Southern California, these laws mandate that huge amounts of land be strictly set aside for single-family housing only.

Because of the prevalence of single-family housing, cities spread too far out, creating less area for denser, more affordable housing to be built. Tiwari adds that zoning laws don’t necessarily have to create housing scarcity, but in most cases, they do.

“There’s something called a minimum lot size,” he said. “So if you stipulate that to build a new single-family house, you need a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet or 7,500 square feet. What you’re basically saying is that you cannot use a lot size smaller than that to put up two units. you can only put up one unit per 6,000. So, that’s creating land scarcity.”

Zoning laws are typically perpetrated by lawmakers who favor the single-family housing market over more densely populated settings.

“City council members are elected by folks who vote,” Tiwari said. “Folks who vote tend to be older or property owners themselves, and hence more likely to engage in ‘not in my backyard’ type behavior. So, they don’t typically want things that are higher density, things that will increase traffic, things will increase the number of people, and so on.”

Tiwari said that zoning laws are also sometimes supported as single-family housing can bring in more property tax than other markets.

The presence of zoning laws in Southern California has caused a decline in the “middle market” of housing – housing options that fall between single-family homes and huge apartment complexes and skyscrapers. Housing types such as duplexes, townhouses, and bungalow courts have decreased in presence in Southern California.

According to UCLA, over half of Los Angeles is dedicated to space for single-family homes. The amount of single-family housing grew as the city began to favor it more than denser housing.

Although the issue has yet to change course, a future with more high-density housing is possible as new opportunities present themselves and cities explore their options.

“Pre-COVID, it was not looking very good,” Tiwari said. “But post-COVID, I think what you’re going to have is a lot of opportunities because a lot of commercial space is going to be underutilized as companies at least transition to a partial telecommuting model.”

In February, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to allocate funds and resources towards acquiring 10,000 affordable housing units by 2030.