Rising rents. Displacement. Seemingly endless lawsuits and delays for even the smallest housing projects. Failed attempt upon failed promise to address the housing crisis. Los Angeles used to be one of America’s more affordable cities – a city where even people of modest means could find a place to live and pursue their dreams without paying an exorbitant portion of their income for housing. How did things get so bad?
Conventional wisdom holds that Los Angeles is founded on the automobile and single-family subdivision sprawl. But this is not the case.
The Los Angeles region has always grown at its edges through the construction of single-family homes, fueled first by the streetcar and then by the freeway. But equally important – more important, actually – is that in the past, previously developed areas were allowed to increase in density. While single-family homes were spreading at the fringe, progressively denser forms of apartment buildings sprang up in older parts of the city, from fourplexes to podiums, modest dingbats to elegant apartment houses. Allowing more density kept overall prices down and provided a wide range of housing types for people to choose from.
Note that, of course, this mechanism did not address societal issues like segregation and discrimination. It did, though, ensure that housing production kept pace with a rapidly growing population – much more rapidly than today. The animated gif below shows housing production across the LA region by decade, from 1940 through the present. Some neighborhoods are labeled to help orient the map. Darker blue colors indicate more housing being built.
As can be seen by the expanding ring of blue, during this entire period the metropolis continued its steady march outward. However, if you look at the middle of the map – at more centrally located places like Koreatown, Glendale, Santa Monica, and Hollywood – you’ll see that housing production continued to occur there as well, as apartments and condos replaced smaller structures.
That is, until about 1980. Since that time, housing production in established neighborhoods has fallen off a cliff. This is exactly the opposite of what should be expected, because since 1980 housing prices and rents have increased quickly, much more quickly than inflation and wage growth. The market has been screaming, practically begging, for more housing to be built, especially in high-rent places like the Westside. But it hasn’t been built. Instead, waves of displacement and rising rents have been crashing ever further eastward. Why?
The forces beneath anything as complex as the housing market are complex, but the overriding source of the housing crisis in Los Angeles is this: it is this way because politically powerful anti-housing forces have decided it will be this way.
Starting around 1970, anti-growth and anti-housing forces achieved a long string of political victories that made it more difficult to build housing in LA. The most important of these were residential downzoning measures: changes in city policy that reduced the number of apartments that could be built on a piece of property. In enormous areas of the city, that number was reduced to zero; no development other than the single-family house is allowed. This was followed in 1985 by Prop U, which cut in half the size of buildings allowed on most of the city’s commercial boulevards. In vast areas of the city that had the infrastructure and the planning for more housing, it would not be allowed to be constructed.
The graph below shows the result of these policies.
The City of LA, in 1960 planned to have enough housing to hold 10 million people, was by 1990 zoned down to allow housing for only 4 million. Similar stories played out in other cities across the county. Residents – you, us, everyone – have been paying the price for these policies with their rent checks every month since.
No-growth activism and policies are short-sighted in space and time. They increase the burden of housing costs on future generations. They cause displacement, as housing demand tries to seek an outlet. The Westside’s downzoning is the Eastside’s displacement. But no-growth forces don’t care about that. They’ve been relentlessly pursuing the goal of no development anywhere in LA for 45 years, and these destructive policies and practices continue to this day. Almost every project proposed in Hollywood faces legal challenges that the average person could be forgiven for mistaking for extortion, even those being built, even those that are already finished. Santa Monica’s anti-development forces just succeeded in getting its commercial boulevards downzoned from 5 stories to 3 stories.
Enough is enough. No-growth activists have been tilting at the windmills for almost half a century. What do we have to show for it? High rents. Displacement. Long commutes through traffic that is as bad as it’s ever been. No-growth policies have been failing the region for decades. There’s no way they’ll ever succeed. There isn’t a city on earth that anyone wants to live in that’s solved its housing crisis by not building housing.
Increasing housing supply won’t solve all of our housing issues – just like it didn’t solve all of them in the past. Policies to ensure fair housing and non-discrimination, and to protect and ensure decent housing is available for society’s most vulnerable, are essential. However, as long as the housing crisis persists, these goals will likely prove unattainable. Done the right way, increasing housing supply will greatly assist policies to achieve those goals.
Abundant Housing LA believes in a sustainable and prosperous future for Los Angeles and the region, with lower rents, more housing choice, and the opportunity for everyone to pursue their LA dreams. We are dedicated to fighting for more housing at the neighborhood, city, regional, and state level. We believe in a Los Angeles that’s inclusive, open to change, and welcoming to all. If that sounds like something you believe too, please join us.