Let's talk about how California's new housing reforms aren't going far enough.

I've mostly finished with my book tour, and so now I have a certain amount of free time to start writing again about housing and transport.

BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT: California needs to stop picking around the edges of current housing law and revamp it wholesale.

I've posted on here a lot about how it's a big deal that California has finally turned a corner on its actual policy.  It represents a major break from the assumptions of the past - that housing and growth weren't necessary.  It's even more encouraging that the State is putting its money where its mouth is, and cracking down on municipalities that think they can dodge their responsibility to build more housing.  (Sorry not sorry, La Canada-Flintridge.)

But it's not enough.  And you can see this from the housing construction figures.  For all the legislative movement, California housing construction is basically tracking the national trend.  The only real bright spot in an otherwise pretty dismal picture is the ADU front, where Californians have embraced the ADU as a way to build more housing.  

The key to the ADU reform is that it's dead simple.  If you own a piece of property, you can put an ADU or two on it.  Full stop.  Anyone can do it with a piece of property they own, and any general contractor - the kind you hire to renovate a kitchen - can build one.  This is the secret to the ADU's reform success.  The reform is bureaucratically simple and straightforward, and state law keeps city governments from trying to screw you.

Most of the other reforms have tinkered around the edges with the extremely complicated, and extremely stupid way of building housing that we do now.  For instance, you might be able to build more on a particular lot under state law, but only if you use expensive union labor, or provide some kinds of nebulous public benefits, or subsidize the construction of rent-controlled units, or any number of other tradeoffs that don't really make it easier to build housing. For all of the actions that the Legislature has taken, they just haven't moved the needle much.

For instance, Bill SB9 last year rezoned all single-family residential land to allow two duplexes, but there's been very little new home construction using SB9. LA got a grand total of 211 SB9 applications in the first year, compared to 5188 ADUs. It's not rocket science why SB9 hasn't taken off.  First, SB9 units are capped at 800 square feet each, which just isn't big enough to make it economically viable to build.  (In San Francisco, I grew up on the lower half of a duplex, and the units were 1750 and 750 square feet, respectively.)  Second, SB9 requires the landowner to live on the property.  Because most suburban-style houses are situated in the center of the lot, it's often geometrically impossible to reconfigure the lot without bulldozing the existing structure.

As I've written in this space previously, this was not the way things used to happen in the past.  In the past, zoning laws were dramatically looser, and randos could and did show up at the City with the appropriate permit fees to build small apartment buildings and townhouses. This is how most of LA's dingbats were built - not by big developers, but by ordinary people, some who weren't even in the real estate business. The bureaucracy was configured so you didn't need lawyers to learn the intricacies of local development law.  And the result was brownstones in NYC, Victorians in SF and dingbats in LA.  Houston still does this, because it reformed its housing law in 1998 and 2013 to allow townhouses on 1400-square-foot lots everywhere, no questions asked,  just like the ADU law.

You can also see the value of simplicity from the brief builders' remedy period in Santa Monica: when the local regulations are dramatically loosened, it's not hard for places to approve and build a bunch of new housing.  Santa Monica had to approve more new homes in a few weeks than it previously built in the last eight years.

Now, I realize that making these kinds of dramatic simplifications to housing law are hard politically.  They're bound trigger all the NIMBYs who are happy with the current, crummy status quo, where housing is bad quality, expensive, and hard to come by.

There is, however, a proven way to disarm the NIMBYs.  It's called a "block-level opt-out."  In Houston, one reason that they have been able to build so much new housing in the city center is that they allow for individual city blocks to opt out of Houston's townhouse reforms for 40 years, but only if a majority of landholders on a particular block agree.  While it's somewhat problematic from a theoretical perspective, at a practical level it was effective.  It effectively disarmed the NIMBY opposition, providing an outlet for loud NIMBYs to freeze their particular blocks in place.  Less than 5% of blocks opted out.

We really need to learn from the way other places do this, and the way that we did things in the past.  LA (and California at large) is a great place for innovation - we did invent the electric guitar and the stealth fighter, after all - but this isn't a time to be thinking about innovation.  It's really about imitation, both of our past and of how other cities do things today.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published