Let's talk about how the City of LA is the only place in California actually planning to do something about the housing crisis.

Right now, every city in California has to produce a rezoning plan to meet a quota of new homes, called a Housing Element.* Overall, if things were done in good faith you want to dramatically increase housing production: 1.3 million or so in greater LA over the next eight years. If you don't put together a good faith zoning plan, the State will bring the hammer down on you and void your local zoning until you get your shit together, as I've written in this space previously.

Now that we've seen a lot of them, most of these rezoning plans are made up of obvious nonsense. El Segundo thinks that churches and the school board will build all their affordable housing for them (no mention where the money is going to come from); South Pasadena says they'll replace City Hall with an apartment building; Redondo Beach wants to evict its largest employer. Santa Monica and Pasadena have decided that redlining is good, actually. (Redlining: "let's put all the new apartments in the historically black and Hispanic neighborhoods.")** (For a deeper dive, click here.) The City of LA is the only place that has its shit together.

OK, I'll bite. Why is LA's rezoning plan good and the others are all shit?

It's because LA actually does the math.

Cities are required by law to calculate the "realistic capacity" to accommodate new housing when writing a rezoning plan. (Law nerds: it's Gov’t Code 65583.2(g)(2).) In plain English, realistic capacity is easy to understand: (1) not every lot in the rezoning plan will get replaced with new housing, and (2), if they build new housing, they probably won't build out to the legal maximum.

This is a pretty sensible thing if you think about it. Nobody's going to tear down the Saban Theatre to build affordable housing, even if it's technically legal. And most of the time, real estate developers don't build the legal maximum number of units on a piece of land. These townhouses on Wilshire are an extreme  example: the legal maximum under the zoning here is 38 homes, but it was most profitable to build 7 really, really nice townhouses instead. Same for these townhouses in El Segundo. The legal max capacity was 304, but in the end the developers only built 58 new homes. See what I mean?

LA does this calculation, and none of the other cities do.

Wait, what? The other cities don't actually do the math?

Yeah, you heard me. The bad actors in this play (that is, every other local government in greater LA) just assume that most homes which are legal on paper will get built. Long story short, bad local governments fudge the math.

It's not actually hard to do this calculation. Cities know the legal zoned capacity of all their land and they just have to check it against recent building permits. (Hell, I managed to do the math, and I'm just a guy with a laptop.) Problem is, most city rezoning plans don't even bother to do this, and they just make things up. So, for example, El Segundo claims that they'll build 492 new homes by zoning for 665 more units. At first glance this sounds reasonable, but it has no relationship with the evidence.

El Segundo's assuming that 66% of their new zoned capacity will get used. Thing is, during the last eight years, only 7% of the zoned capacity got built. They're planning to zone for almost 10 times less housing than they actually should. Worse, most of the cities in Los Angeles County are doing the exact same thing.

City Claimed capacity usage Historical capacity usage How much they actually should zone for
El Segundo 66% 7% 9.5x
Burbank 80% 12% 6.7x
Pasadena 90% 40% 2.25x
Santa Monica 86% 33% 2.6x
Whittier 50% 25% 2x


So, let's put this into real numbers. El Segundo says that zoning for 665 units will get them 492 new homes. Using the actual historical data, zoning for 665 would get you exactly 47 new homes. El Segundo, and practically every other city in LA County, is planning to miss their target by a huge amount - so precious little new housing will get built, and the crisis will keep getting worse.

OK, so what did LA do differently?

When LA City actually did the math for their rezoning plan, they came to the conclusion that maybe 3.5% of capacity will get used in the next eight years. Or, in real terms, to meet LA's quota of 455,000 new homes over the next eight years, the City of LA needs to zone for 13 million new homes. No, that's not a typo.

Wait, what? 13 million new homes of capacity? That sounds insane. 

It's not. Before things went to hell in California, cities routinely had massive amounts of extra zoned capacity, so cities could grow and not have these kinds of housing crises. The City of LA had a population of 2.5 million in 1960 - and a zoned capacity of 10 million. That's the kind of aggressive thinking you need to make California livable again. But at the rate we're going, LA City is the only place which isn't asking for the state to bring the hammer down on it. After all, the State brought the hammer down on San Diego and voided their local zoning until they can get their shit together. And San Diego was doing the exact same things that El Segundo, Burbank, Pasadena and so on did too.

Every city in California has the opportunity, right now, to actually fix its housing crisis and build more homes. Trouble is, only the city of Los Angeles is trying.

* The technical term is the Housing Element for the 6th Cycle Regional Housing Needs Allocation, but I hate using bureaucratic jargon.

** The canonical book on this is Rothstein's The Color of Law. If you want to see the actual maps, click here.

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