Let's talk about why LA doesn't have townhouses.

Let's talk about townhouses, and why LA doesn't have them, even though there's a housing shortage - and every other major city in the country has them.

The quintessential LA house is a single-family detached home, whether it's a bungalow built after World War I or a ranch-style house built after World War II. LA generally doesn't have townhouses like the Victorians of San Francisco, the classic Chicago two-flat or the rowhouses of Philadelphia.

Let's talk a little about why.

Let's go back to the early 20th century, when LA was a boomtown of streetcar suburbs knit together by the largest electric railway system in the world.

Back in the day, Los Angeles's government did as much as possible to encourage sprawl. The City Council passed a law in 1904 limiting buildings to a maximum of 13 stories, at a time when buildings in NYC and Chicago were already being built to a height of 30 stories; in the 1920s, the city passed a setback law requiring residential buildings to be physically separated from one another. This effectively banned townhouses.

This wasn't a particularly large problem in the 1920s. The Red Car system went everywhere, LA had seemingly limitless land available - at the time, it seemed like there were limitless acres of orange groves in the San Fernando Valley and bean fields outside of Long Beach that you could pave over.

And that, of course, is what Los Angeles did - and the bungalow of the 1920s eventually evolved into the 1950s ranch house with a driveway and a lawn. And the townhouse ban basically stayed in place through all of this. This is a major reason why LA's housing stock is the worst of all possible worlds today. LA's housing today is expensive, old, and shitty, in part because it's still illegal to bulldoze a decrepit century-old bungalow and put up rowhouses like the ones you see in SF, Chicago, or Philadelphia. The end result of this policy is, Zillow is full of flippers asking $1.7 million for some shoebox built in 1920. If a time traveler from 1950 came to the year 2021, in many cases they'd scarce recognize the difference.

And that's the most infuriating thing to me: it's not for lack of land. LA isn't Manhattan, where every square inch of land is filled with buildings. The problem is, in over 3/4 of LA, it's illegal to build anything other than a suburban-style house with a lawn. You see some townhouses here and there, like these in Hancock Park, or these on the Westside, but they're only normally allowed in apartment zones - and only in LA City. Try that shit in suburbs like Santa Monica, San Marino or Beverly Hills and they'll laugh you out of the room.

This is a shame.

Compared to single-family houses, townhouses have two big advantages: one, they sell for cheaper than traditional single-family, and two, they use the land more efficiently. My parents' old house in San Francisco put three units onto a 2400 square foot plot of land, for example. This is three times as many units as a normal suburban house - and on a lot half the size.

Compared to a full-blown condo complex, townhouses also have their advantages. You can build multiple units on a lot, but you also don't have to set up an HOA or have a long-term investment in the building once the units are sold. Condo buildings let you build more on a given piece of land, but they're also more risky: they need hallways, sprinklers, elevators, earthquake-proofing, and (usually) a big garage, which means you need a lot more time, money and expertise to get things moving. And until all the units are sold, the builder has to run the HOA.

Finally, townhouses provide good bones for a city. The house I grew up in in San Francisco has been a single-family home, a duplex and a triplex in its 100 years of existence. If you wanted to gut it and convert it to commercial or office space, you could do it if the zoning board allowed it. These kinds of conversions are relatively common in older cities, where you'll see these types of buildings occupied by law offices and the like.

Just like the granny flat, the townhouse is one of the really useful tools that LA could use to fix its housing crisis - but LA hasn't chosen to allow townhouses to be built in normal residential zones. And arguably, until the state government in Sacramento forces them to allow them, they won't build them to be built. (The bill that would allow that is Bill SB9 in the State Senate right now.)

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