Mon, May

The Public Understands The Housing Crisis Better Than The Electeds


PLANNING WATCH - Despite its new publisher and stunning circulation decline, the Los Angeles Times has continued to shill for real estate speculators.  This was obvious in an April 14, 2024, article publishing letters-to-the-editor on homelessness.  Despite letters that clearly identified the underlying social and economic causes of homelessness, the paper’s introduction claimed these letters reflected similar differences among decision makers. 

This claim is not true.  The differences among City Hall’s officials are extremely narrow, restricted to opposition to land use regulations they claim stymie housing construction.  In contrast, many of the published letters demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the homeless crisis.  If only the paper and the pols considered the factors and solutions identified in these letters.  This is why I repeatedly argue that City Hall lacks a basic understanding of the worsening housing crisis, explained in these letters and in easily accessible studies

The editor of the letters article wrote this introduction: “The last mayoral election, between Karen Bass and Rick Caruso reflected this divide… What we heard fell broadly into two camps.  One with arguments that focused on law and order, a traditional conservative view, the other focused on systematic issues, such as economic inequality, a traditionally liberal view.” 

If only this were true.  At City Hall, where Karen Bass defeated Rick Caruso in LA’s recent Mayoral election, there is deafening silence on the basic causes of rising homelessness.  In LA, like other major US cities, housing policy is based on the neo-conservative claim that the lack of low income housing results from “excessive” regulations.  This claim is the urban growth machine’s ploy for dumping zoning laws that restrict the number of housing units that can be built on residential lots.  For policy makers -- regardless of their party identification  -- this claim is their secret sauce for increasing real estate profits by allowing more housing units on existing parcels (i.e., densification).


It also explains why they fail to address such real causes of the housing crisis as rising economic inequality, elimination of HUD and CRA public housing programs, and zoning  waivers that allow the construction of expensive housing. 

This is how death by a thousand cuts has unfolded, revealing the dynamics of the housing crisis for all those who care to see. 

1)     From the Democratically-controlled California State legislature, where the Republican minority is a junior partner, three Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) and two duplexes are now allowed on residential lots previously limited to single-family homes.

2)     At the local level these handouts to real estate developers include ministerial (in-house) density bonuses adopted in 2008:  This Los Angeles ordinance eliminates zoning restrictions on height, density, parking, and yards.  The underlying assumption is that given a free hand, developers will then build enormous amounts of new housing.  Some will be affordable, and the rest will lower housing prices.  16 years later the public is still waiting for this to happen. 

3)     Slow-moving updates of LA’s 35 Community Plans will eventually include large up-zoning ordinances that will permit more housing units on existing residential lots.  Not only are the infrastructure upgrades required for these increases in population and housing swept-under-the carpet, the justifications for these density increases are also missing. For example: 

  • Do these Community Plans have vacant apartments?  No data is presented.
  • Will forecast population increases in these Community Plan areas exceed the actual capacity of existing zoning?  No data is presented. 

4)     The Mayor’s housing program, ED1, automatically exempts ED1 projects from legal notices to neighbors, environmental reviews, public hearings, and appeals. 

5)     LA’s adopted Housing Element will eventually have appended ordinances that up-zone vast swaths of Los Angeles, eventually making zoning waivers and bonuses for individual residential projects unnecessary. 

Conclusion: The rising numbers of homeless people in Los Angeles and elsewhere is not caused by zoning laws.  This is why the City Hall initiatives I listed above to weaken these laws either make no difference or worsen the housing crisis worse. 

(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA).  Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions to [email protected].)