This guest blog post was written and kindly contributed by Mark Vallianatos (@markvalli) of Abundant Housing LA.

As many readers may know, Los Angeles is suffering from a severe housing crisis. The situation today is actively contributing to rising homelessness, rent burdens, resident displacement, overcrowding, and the departure of lower-income and younger residents, who are forced to seek less expensive regions. It is also preventing potential community members from joining the city, from pursuing education and employment opportunities, and from adding to the culture.

Fortunately, the City of Los Angeles is currently updating many of its land use plans. The residents of Los Angeles have a rare opportunity to influence new community plans, a new general land use plan, and a new zoning code. The city will draft new plans for different neighborhoods all over Los Angeles, and residents need to support more housing in every community to keep Los Angeles open and affordable for both current residents and newcomers.

This post explains the city’s planning process and how you can get involved to help solve the city’s housing crisis.

How Los Angeles plans

California requires cities to create a general plan that guides future growth and development and zones in a way that regulates density and land usage. In Los Angeles, this general plan regulates the kind of construction allowed on public and private land, influences transportation and other infrastructure, and addresses the environmental impacts of developments.

The City of Los Angeles is one of the most expansive cities in the country. It has decided to divide its land use planning, as required by the state, into 35 Community Plans (plus special plans for LAX and the Port of Los Angeles).

Los Angeles also has a Framework Element in its general plan that aims to provide a citywide pattern for urban change — ultimately joining the 35 community plans into a well-designed city.
Additionally, Los Angeles sometimes creates specific plans for smaller geographic areas. For example, the city is working on three transit plans around parts of the Expo Line, Orange Line and Purple Line — these three plans are all going before the LA Planning Commission within days or weeks of the publication of this article. To learn more about each one, and potentially get involved, please see the plan details at the end of this piece.

What is in a community plan?

Community plans set the rules for what can be built on every piece of property in the City of Los Angeles.

They also control what types of activities are allowed on each piece of land. Community plans regulate the size and classification of streets and the need for and placement of public facilities, like parks and libraries. Community plans map each individual piece of property to give it a land use designation, like “neighborhood commercial” or “medium density residential.” These designations describe general categories of land uses, so every site also gets a more specific zoning type with specific rules, for example, “C2” or “R3.”

What is in the zoning code?

The zoning code controls whether any housing can be built on a piece of land, how big a building can be, how many units of housing are allowed as part of that building, how much parking is required, and other design standards.

How do community plans affect housing?

The zoning on each piece of land —set by community plans — can directly limit the amount of housing allowed on a site by capping the number of homes, or the number of homes per acre. Zoning can also indirectly limit housing on a piece of property by setting a maximum size for any buildings on that piece of land or by setting a minimum lot size. When we add up the number of homes allowed on each piece of land, we can calculate the maximum amount of homes allowed for the community plan area.

This designated total is often never reached, for a variety of reasons: some space where homes are allowed is used for other things; some sites are already built with fewer homes; some sites are not financially feasible for building to the maximum housing density.

But the total space, or capacity, is important. If this space is close to being filled, then it’s not possible to build enough new homes to meet the population of the city, let alone all those who want to move to the city. Vacancy rates will be low, and rents will be high. If, on the other hand, the home limit is significantly higher than the existing number of homes, there will be space to add additional housing as population and demand rise, reducing the “squeeze” that contributes to a housing crisis.

The City of Los Angeles drew up much of its original community plans in the 1970s, and updated them in the 80s and 90s, resulting in what is called “downzoning”— the city directly or indirectly cut the number of homes allowed in the community. Downzoning contributed to Los Angeles’ current housing shortage and high housing costs. This chart from UCLA scholar Greg Morrow shows how LA’s housing capacity was dramatically reduced during the “downzoning.”

Rules other than limits on the number of homes also impact housing. If the rules require lots of land and money to be used on parking or other requirements, then it is likely that fewer homes will be built. If the rules make it difficult to build a modern, in-demand building, the owner may need to seek exemptions from the zoning code. This adds time and money to the development process, which will reduce the number of homes built and/or make them more expensive.

Zoning can also encourage or require specific types of homes. For example, state and local density bonuses allow more homes to be built than normally permitted, if the plans include a certain number of affordable units. A community plan might also incentivize or require units of a certain minimum size, with a minimum number of bedrooms, etc.

Plans are out-of-date

The city’s framework elements and many of its community plans are now almost 20 years old. LA’s zoning code dates back to 1946. Updating them will hopefully allow us to create more space for housing and reflect the ways that the city is changing: from new transit, to concerns over climate change, to growing social diversity.

How you can get involved in new plans

The city is in the process of updating a number of community plans, transit corridor plans, the general plan, and zoning code. You may want to provide feedback or attend community meetings for a plan where you live or work, so that planners understand that Angelenos need more homes of all types. The housing market is regional, and adding more homes anywhere in LA can help alleviate the “squeeze” of the current housing crisis.

As of this article’s publication, the three plans below are in early stages or going before the LA Planning Commission soon. As such, there are upcoming opportunities for readers and LA residents to get involved and comment on each, as detailed here:

Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan

The Expo Line brought rail transit back to the westside for the first time in 60 years. The plan is going to the LA Planning Commission on November 9, 2017. Abundant Housing LA has an online action alert that you can use to send a letter encouraging more homes in the new plan. You can also sign up for updates here.

Orange Line Transit Neighborhood Plan

The Orange Line plan, focused near five stations (North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sepulveda, Reseda and Sherman Way) is in an earlier stage than the Expo plan. There is a lot of low-density zoning along this corridor that should be up-zoned. There is a meeting on November 15, from 6 PM to 8:30 PM at Van Nuys City Hall, Council Chambers, 2nd Floor, 14410 Sylvan St, Van Nuys, to get public feedback on the initial concept. You can also sign up for updates here.

Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan

There is a meeting on November 16, from 6 PM to 8 PM at Pan Pacific Senior Activity Center, 141 S Gardner St., Los Angeles, focused on potential land use changes near three future purple line stations at Wilshire/ La Brea, Wilshire/ Fairfax and Wilshire/ La Cienega. These areas offer great opportunities for more housing. You can also sign up for updates here.