Like many people in Los Angeles, I like detached houses. My family lives in a single-family home that was built in 1923 by a woman from Hollywood. Houses like mine are an important part of L.A.’s built environment, history and housing stock. In a region with a housing shortage and homelessness crisis, all homes are good homes.
Somewhere along the way, however, our attachment to single family homes went awry.
The year my house was built was the undisputed high point of housing construction in Los Angeles. The city permitted almost 44,000 new housing units in 1923 — the equivalent of 170,000 new homes in 2018 when adjusted for the difference in population. While close to half of these were single-family dwellings, 9,706 were duplexes and 14,627 were bungalow court apartments, fourplexes and mid-rise masonry apartment houses. At the time, most of central Los Angeles was zoned so that any type of residence could be built on a piece of land.
These days, about half of the city is zoned for single-family exclusively. It is illegal to have anything except a detached house (and sometimes an accessory unit) on close to 500,000 properties in Los Angeles. Limiting what types of homes are allowed in this way has not only contributed to soaring housing costs, it has also created profound racial and class segregation.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) recently introduced a bill that would help change that. SB 827 would relax some local density and height restrictions and parking requirements on land near busy transit stops. In Los Angeles, that would allow small-to-medium-sized apartment buildings to be built on approximately 190,000 single family-zoned lots where such development has been banned for decades. That change could simultaneously take Los Angeles back to the 1920s, when zoning was more flexible, and forward into the 2020s, by allowing the city to grow and adapt to reflect a modern, diverse metropolis.
SB 827 puts us on notice: Even if you love detached houses, they shouldn’t be the only type of home that is allowed. And yet our city leaders seem reluctant to step away from that narrow version of the L.A. dream.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to oppose SB 827. While some council members acknowledged that we need to do more on housing affordability, they also used metaphors like “blowing up” and “chainsawing” neighborhoods to justify rejecting SB 827. Mayor Eric Garcetti argued that SB 827 shouldn’t change single-family-only zoning because apartments wouldn’t “look right” mixed in with detached houses.
There are plenty of neighborhoods that prove him wrong. I love walking around my community in Northeast L.A. and seeing the mix of duplexes, bungalow courts, single-family houses, dingbat apartments and townhome-style small-lot subdivisions. Not to mention it’s hard to take aesthetic complaints about taller buildings or boxy apartments seriously when so many Angelenos are living in tents, under tarps or in literal cardboard boxes.
But the most cringe-worthy aspect of the “community character” argument is the fact that single-family-only rules are a legacy of racist exclusionary zoning.
In the early 20th century, many private property deeds banned owners from selling to blacks, Asians, Latinos and Jews. However, when Southern cities tried to institutionalize that with explicitly racist zoning rules, the courts struck them down. Single-family-only zoning originated partly as a way around the court’s ruling, a means to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group. Minorities, after all, could usually more easily afford apartment living than home ownership.
Los Angeles added single-family-only zones to its code in 1921, one of the first cities in the nation to divide houses from apartments. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld single-family zones in a 1926 case in Ohio. The majority opinion described apartment buildings as encroaching like “parasites … until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed.”
This type of race- and class-coded language has often been present when people want to restrict multifamily housing. It’s echoed in the fearful rhetoric about drugs, crime and transients we often hear as L.A. tries to fund and build more affordable housing and supportive housing for the homeless.
Single-family zoning is a worm in L.A.’s apple, one of our original planning sins.
The challenge for Los Angeles and California today is how to bring back the building-boom spirit of the past and redeem the legacy of racist land-use laws. SB 827 would help by legalizing apartments near transit and by implementing strong tenant protections. It’s a shame our city officials prefer propping up our tainted land-use legacy to building enough homes for all Angelenos.
Mark Vallianatos is director of LAplus, a think tank focused on planning and housing.