In 2005, the City of LA created the small lot subdivision ordinance. This land use policy is not well understood, and has recently come under fire from both NIMBYs that want to stop development in LA and people concerned about displacement. With that in mind, let’s get to know the small lot subdivision ordinance, and see how it might be improved to better serve LA’s housing needs.
What Are Small Lot Subdivisions?
A small lot subdivision is a project that constructs several free-standing single-family houses or attached townhouses, albeit with separate walls and a small amount of airspace in between homes, on lots that are smaller than conventional single-family lots. Unlike apartments, which are rented, or condominiums, which come with costly condo board fees and assessments, the houses in a small lot subdivision are owned fee simple, meaning that each unit is owned individually. Common areas like driveways or open space are typically governed by a simple maintenance agreement rather than a costly and bureaucratic homeowners association. By increasing density and avoiding condo fees, small lot subdivisions make home ownership more affordable.
In Los Angeles, the generic single-family zone is R1, which requires a 5,000 SF minimum lot for one house. The small lot subdivision ordinance can be use in any RD zone, plus the R3, R4, and R5 zones, at the density permitted by that zone. So a 7,500 SF lot in the R1 zone will only allow one house, but the same lot in the RD1.5 zone will allow 5 houses.
The small lot subdivision ordinance provides relief from the normal setback requirements for the buildings interior to the lot. For example, the RD1.5 zone normally requires 3’-5’ side yards, but this does not apply to yards between two houses within a small lot project. Minimum lot size is 600 SF and minimum lot width is 16’, compared to 5,000 SF and 50’ in the R1 zone.
Why did the City create the Small Lot Subdivision?
Attached, ownership homes like townhouses and row houses are a common building block of cities throughout the world. In Los Angeles, however, there are few such homes. This may seem to be the result of a local preference for (or ideology in favor of) the detached house with its own yard as opposed to the attached housing of older cities.
But in reality, Los Angeles banned attached one unit dwellings for decades. There was no choice involved. As Andrew Whittemore describes in his article “How the Federal Government Zoned America”, a 1930s LA ordinance requiring side yards effectively outlawed townhouses and row houses:
“the City Planning Commission having stated that without the Yard Ordinance ‘there is no regulation to prevent the development in sunny Los Angeles of the undesirable row houses so characteristic of densely populated Eastern cities… side yards should be required on both sides of every building used for human habitation and should be of sufficient width to admit adequate light and air based upon sunlight projection.’ In requiring front and rear yards in addition, the Yard Ordinance also required residences to be set back from the front lot line and cover a smaller percentage of the property. In so doing, it effectively banned the kinds of housing construction commonly associated with traditional urbanism: it eliminated the row-house building type, set buildings back from the street, and spread out development by requiring open space to surround buildings on all sides.”
Townhouses were partly re-legalized in the late 1960s if done as part of planned unit developments in the 60s and 70s. But few smaller infill sites would be feasible spots for these master-planned developments. The small lot subdivision ordinance was intended to legalize more townhouse and row house style development and to expand options for homeownership. In a way, small lot projects are symbols that we can have more diverse type of housing LA and that traditional forms of urban housing do work in our city.
Why Are NIMBYs Upset About Small Lot Subdivisions?
Well, what development aren’t they mad about!? The NIMBY knocks on the small lot subdivisions are that they increase density (which they are supposed to do), are built on small lots (which is right in the name), and change the building line along the street (things change, get over it). The Los Angeles City Council is considering amending the ordinance and guidelines to limit the size of these projects if they are adjacent to single family zones and to ban them on land zoned for duplexes.
Why Are Anti-Displacement Advocates Upset About Small Lot Subdivisions?
Small lot subdivisions are allowed in any of the RD zones, plus the R2, R3, R4, and R5 zones. Particularly in the RD1.5 and R3 zones, this may bring small lot subdivisions into conflict with the goal of preserving rent-stabilized units. R4 and R5 zones allow enough density that small lot subdivisions are rarely practical, and RD2 through RD5 zones rarely have existing apartments.
The problem in RD1.5 and R3 zones with existing older rent-stabilized apartments is that there could be a profit incentive to demolish the apartments and replace them with houses for sale. This could be a problem with the small lot subdivision ordinance, and needs to studied to see if revisions are needed to address this issue.
What Would Make the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance Better?
There are two major problems with the small lot subdivision ordinance: it could potentially cause the loss of rent-stabilized units in RD1.5 and R3 zones, and it hasn’t created enough entry level housing. These problems are both easily addressed.
To create more entry level housing, the small lot subdivision ordinance could be expanded to more neighborhoods in the city, especially towards the edges of the city where land costs are lower. For example, the creation of an RD1.2 zone would allow 4 units on a 5000 SF lot and 6 units on a 7500 SF lot, allowing for a prototypical 4-unit or 6-unit housing court to be constructed on common lot sizes. Existing R1 zones could be upzoned to the new RD1.2, allowing the development of small lot projects where they would not result in any displacement.
Small lot subdivisions should not be allowed to destroy existing rent-stabilized units unless they are replaced in kind and current tenants are allowed the right of return. One way to do this would be to allow the creation of small first-floor apartments in some of the small lot houses in such cases with a roofer working on the roofs outside the houses. An additional density bonus would likely be required to make this financially viable. The ordinance could also be updated to preclude small lot subdivisions if they do not result in an increase in housing supply relative to the number of existing units on the site.
The small lot subdivision ordinance could also be improved by reducing parking requirements from 2 spaces per unit to 1 or 1.5 per unit. Especially for smaller, entry level housing, parking requirements are a significant barrier to new construction. Finally, the ordinance could allow small lot buildings to be designed with an attached accessory dwelling unit (ADU). This would both create small, affordable apartments, and help defray the cost of ownership for first-time buyers.
Dreaming Big with Small Lots
The small lot subdivision has its flaws, but it has also helped create a good deal of housing in LA. By making housing supply, variety, and affordability our goals, we can devise policies that improve the small lot ordinance to help serve the housing needs of all Angelenos.
Contact your city council member and encourage them to allow them on more sites, not fewer and to eliminate or reduce parking requirements when these projects are within half a mile of transit stations or frequent bus routes. We need more housing and more diverse housing in Los Angeles.