Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at UCLA Luscin School of Public Affairs
California’s rents and housing prices are among the nation’s high- est, yet the state ranks almost last in the production of new housing. How is this possible? The answer lies primarily in local zoning and the local planning process. Most of the most sought after neighborhoods and cities in California are nearly “full” according to their local zoning codes (and to build housing on the few sites available developers must navigate costly procedures). However, these places are often very low density and could accommodate much more housing at densities that would still be low by international standards.
Thus a necessary component of any housing policy strategy for California, in addition to tenant protections and subsidies for low-income renters, is a reform of existing restrictions on housing development. Since very few city governments are taking action on zoning, the issue warrants state intervention. One way the state has intervened in local planning is around Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). It is now legal to build backyard cottages or garage apartments on most all single-family parcels in the state. A second eﬀort, which has not yet yielded success, is an override of local zoning to allow more housing density in strategic locations across the state – near transit and in jobs rich areas. SB50 was held in suspense in the current legislative session but needs support next year.
The third avenue for state intervention – and one that is ongoing – is the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process mandated by state Housing Element Law. Every eight years cities must assess their zoning capacity for new housing units at diﬀerent aﬀordability levels. Then, if necessary, they must increase this capacity to accommodate population growth through rezoning. The process starts with a determination of regional housing need, and the allocation of housing unit targets to cities by regional governments. Recent laws (most notably SB 828 and AB 1771) have reformed the process, which has proven notoriously ineﬀective at increasing housing in high-demand areas.
The current debate centers on how regions should decide to divide up regional needs to cities. On June 3, 2019, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), outlined a draft methodology for the next RHNA cycle covering the years 2021-2029, outlining diﬀerent approaches to allocating regional housing needs. The methodology needs to be improved. Environmental goals would be better addressed by allocating more housing to cities proximate to jobs. Additionally, social goals should be incorporated to this new methodology by allocating more housing to cities with cleaner air, better schools, more parks, or measures of opportunity.
Additionally, the regional government should allocate more housing need to cities with high rents or housing prices be- cause these reﬂect the high demand for the combination of features people want. This ﬁnal shift would likely stimulate more overall housing production, because, all else being equal, developers build more housing in cities with higher rents. And currently our highest demand – and highest rent – cities have low levels of zoned capacity for housing.
California is beginning to address the misalignment of state housing goals and local planning, and it is about time. The importance of increasing zoned capacity for housing in high demand urban areas cannot be understated, especially if the state government seeks to achieve its goals of social equity and environmental sustainability. By blocking higher density redevelopment near jobs, we force people to commute long distances and our urban regions to sprawl.
I encourage everyone to get involved in the regional planning process directly or through their local elected oﬃcials (more information about the regional planning process is avail- able here). After cities receive their housing targets from SCAG, many will need to rezone to accommodate it. I encourage everyone to advocate for intelligent rezoning in the revisions of their city’s Housing Element, which will begin in 2020 and concludes October 2021. Zoning reform is an important avenue for action on housing, though not suﬃcient to address our state’s housing crisis. Advocacy around larger subsidies for low-income house- holds, and greater tenant protections is also important.
Paavo Monkkonen email is email@example.com and can be found on twitter at @elpaavo.