As we wrote in our previous post, Abundant Housing LA (AHLA) supports increasing local funding for affordable housing in the City of Los Angeles. Because LA needs more new homes of all types, we identified several good options that could raise money for affordable housing construction and preservation without discouraging development of market rate housing.
Funding for housing subsidies is a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution to our housing crisis. Los Angeles also needs to reform rules that have made it difficult to build enough new homes in the city. We need to improve tenant’s rights, and we need to encourage innovation and diversity in our housing. We believe that the City Council needs to advance a comprehensive package of pro-housing funding measures and rule changes.
To help us identify good ideas, we surveyed our members on 18 possible policy changes. The chart below shows them in order of support. As with the funding options, we view this feedback as advisory. We will not automatically support, nor limit ourselves, to the top-rated policies on the chart. The rest of this post gives a brief explanation of the top nine ideas.
1. Expand density bonus
Under the state density bonus law, developers can add up to 35% more units than are allowed by the zoning for a site if they also include affordable homes. AHLA considers this a win-win policy and we have supported many of the density bonus projects proposed in LA. Unfortunately, the program hasn’t been utilized by enough builders to provide a meaningful boost to home construction, partly because some developers find that the bonus provided isn’t big enough to cover the cost of including low-income units. This idea is to allow developers who utilize the full 35% bonus to get an even bigger bonus (e.g., 8 market units per affordable unit compared to approx. 3.5 in base bonus) if they continue to provide additional affordable units. We should note that the City was mandated by Measure JJJ to pass a Transit Oriented Communities incentive program to expand the density bonus near transit. AHLA supports this program, but earlier drafts did not substantially increase the market-to-affordable bonus ratio.
2. Require community plan upzoning
Since the start of the community planning era in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, these plan have downzoned the city, contributing to LA’s housing crisis. Even recently drafted community plans are stingy in increasing housing capacity. They allow enough new homes to meet expected population growth, and nothing more. We believe that the city’s approach locks in low vacancy rates and high housing costs. This idea is to require community plans to upzone so that the realistic, buildable housing capacity is at least 50% higher than the expected population for the plan area. This will provide enough “slack” and flexibility in LA’s housing market to help relieve the pressure of insufficient supply.
3. Eliminate parking requirements near transit
Requiring parking spaces for every new home adds to the cost of new units, takes space that could be used for homes, prevents some smaller properties from being developed at all, and encourages driving. We tested two policy ideas around parking reform. This one to eliminate mandatory parking minimums near transit was very popular, getting nearly 80% support. The other, to eliminate all parking requirements in the city, received fewer votes (just over 50%).
4. Allow small apartments in single family zones near transit
Areas zoned to allow only detached one-unit homes are the largest category of land use in the City of Los Angeles. Some of these areas are located right next to train stations, walkable shopping districts, and employment centers: the exact places where we should be adding homes. A compromise solution that allows more homes and keeps some of these R1 (and similar zoned) neighborhoods predominately low-rise is to allow small multi-family buildings to coexist with single-family homes. As one resident argued, if we are worried about mansionization (very large single family houses), why not let there be duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, etc that add homes but fit well into the neighborhood?
5. Double CEQA threshold
CEQA is the state law that requires analysis of the potential impacts of public or private actions that need government approval. In the City of Los Angeles, developments with 50 or more new units of housing have to be analyzed under CEQA, and third parties can sue alleging that the environmental review was not done properly. These steps have slowed down or stopped thousands of new homes from being built. Many AHLA members are YIMBYs partly because they believe that blocking new homes in cities leads to more sprawl and climate impacts. We don’t oppose CEQA when applied to polluting or environmentally destructive projects, but we think that adding more homes in cities is usually an environmental positive that should be exempt from review. We tested two reforms to LA’s CEQA thresholds in our survey: Doubling the threshold from 50 to 100 units received over 70% support and decoupling CEQA from the number of new homes (tying it instead to the size and ecological value of land) received over 60% support.
6. Add staff + streamline process to cut approval time for new homes
There are many rules and fees that add to the cost of building new homes. Some of these are critical to the safety and quality of new construction. Others may be worth reviewing. One hidden cost is the length of time it takes for new homes to go through planning processes and building inspections. Because developers borrow money to pay for land and construction, the longer it takes to approve and build, the higher price they need to charge when finished. This idea is to hire more planning and building department staff, streamline procedures, and better coordinate between departments so that the time for approving proposed new homes is reduced by 50%.
7. Set density in general plan, details in community plans
As mentioned in point 2 above, the experience with community plans in LA is that they have tended to cut rather than increase the amount of homes allowed. This may be partly because community planning tends to encourage a parochial and exclusionary attitude rather than a big-picture, welcoming attitude. This idea is to plan where growth should be allowed through the citywide update to LA’s general plan, based on objective criteria like proximity to transit and jobs, topography, need to reduce segregation, etc. Community plans would still exist and fill in details like design standards for new developments.
8. Give displaced tenants right to return
When rent-stabilized homes in LA are demolished for a new development, the developer has to replace these units with deeded affordable homes and has to pay the existing tenants relocation assistance. But the tenants will probably not be able to move back into the new development, because the required affordable units will allocated through a lottery or long waiting list. This idea is to give those households who were displaced by development a priority right to move back into replacement affordable units, if they choose to. Giving residents the right of return would help expand tenant rights and ensure those who are displaced also benefit from the new housing once it is complete.
9. Grant HHH funds without needing local council approval
City voters passed Measure HHH in 2016 to fund the construction of permanent supportive homes for homeless Angelenos and other affordable units. To receive money, developers of these homes need to provide a support letter from the Council office in which the proposed project is located. This essentially gives local veto power to City Councilmembers (and to any anti-housing or anti-homeless residents who may have a strong voice in their district). Addressing homelessness is a citywide priority, and this idea is to remove that local veto point.
We are pleased that the responses to our survey identified a mix of planning, regulatory and tenant’s rights policies with good levels of support. Creating an impactful package of reforms will require some additional thought.