Let's talk about how the State of California is bringing the hammer down on bad local governments who won't allow more housing.

BOTTOM-LINE, UP FRONT: The State of California has issued an ultimatum to LA's local governments: reform your land use laws to allow more housing, or else we nuke your land use law this October and anything goes.

THE BACKGROUND

We're in a housing crisis because it's not legal to build enough housing in LA to meet the demand. The epicenter of the problem isn't in the encampments under the 101 - it's in leafy suburbs like South Pasadena, Manhattan Beach, and Beverly Hills, where it's been new housing has been almost totally banned in the last 50 years. Because of that, rich people priced out of South Pas move to middle-class Highland Park; middle-class people end up in working-class Boyle Heights; working-class people in Boyle Heights are shit out of luck. Welcome to gentrification.

The State's solution is, each city has to meet a quota called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment and create a legally binding plan to meet it. (The quota for greater LA is 1.3 million new homes by 2029, and the cities divided up the quota amongst themselves.) If a city's plan won't cut the mustard, and the State can veto the rezoning plans. If the State vetoes a rezoning plan, local zoning law is void. Any building is legal to build, as long as it meets the health and safety code, and it's either (i) 20% rent-controlled affordable housing, or (ii) market-rate housing at rents affordable to the middle classes. So, new residential towers in Beverly Hills? Kosher. Rowhouses in Redondo? Sure. Garden apartments in Glendale? Go for it.

FUCK AROUND AND FIND OUT

Anti-housing cities know these are the potential consequences of breaking the law, but they've been able to ignore state housing law and screw around for so long that none of them seem to have taken the consequences seriously. Because most cities' plans are bullshit, full stop. From my earlier post, a sampling of cities' rezoning plans are:

  • Beverly Hills: "We'll tear down a bunch of 10-story office buildings to build 5-story apartment buildings."
  • Burbank: "It's legal to put all the new apartments near the freeway and the airport, with all the pollution and the noise, right?"
  • Redondo Beach: "We'll evict Northrop Grumman, which is our city's single largest employer."
  • South Pasadena: "We'll bulldoze City Hall and replace it with apartment buildings."
  • Pasadena: "Let's put all the new housing in the redlined neighborhoods."
  • Whittier: "Let's build a ton of new housing in wildfire zones."

Pretty much the only good plan that I've seen is LA City, which made an actual effort to figure out how to build its half-million or so new units of housing that make up the quota.

BRINGING THE BIG GUNS

Because the cities' rezoning plans are so egregiously bad, there's all kinds of easy targets here for the State to open fire on. But it requires the State to keep its nerve. This only works if you don't give in to pressure from the annoying, loud minority of people who treat city council meetings as the Festivus Airing of Grievances.

At first, the State looked like it was going to chicken out. This is because of what happened with San Diego. San Diego's rezoning plans were among the first to be reviewed by the State. And, unsurprisingly, San Diego's rezoning plans were full of the same garbage we've seen for decades: lots of thoughts and prayers about building more housing, lots of unrealistic assumptions about how housing gets built, and very little concrete action. With the recall looming, Governor Newsom's people folded and they rubber-stamped San Diego's lousy rezoning plans. It was bad.

The State forfeited its biggest source of leverage and caved. It boded ill for the fate of the rest of the rezoning plans all over the state. After all, there's not too many ways that the State can force local governments to get their shit together without the State Legislature passing new laws. And, of course, it set a lousy precedent for LA. LA is full of bad-behaving cities who just don't want to build new housing. Worse, it's not just stereotypically NIMBY affluent cities like South Pasadena or Santa Monica or Beverly Hills which behave this way. Middle-class cities like Whittier also have put forth rezoning plans composed of fantastical nonsense. In fact, there was exactly one even well-done rezoning plan, and that was the one drawn up by the City of Los Angeles. I, for one, expected the worst.

I was wrong. 100% wrong.

I AM VERY BAD AT PREDICTING THE FUTURE SOMETIMES

When it came time for the State to review LA's zoning plans, I was pleasantly surprised. Because the State didn't just veto these rezoning plans. They took it one step further, and ordered that if a city's rezoning plan doesn't fix things for real, that city's zoning will be automatically voided in October of this year. And like I mentioned above, if the zoning gets voided, any new building is legal, as long as it meets the health and safety code, and it's either (i) 20% rent-controlled affordable housing, or (ii) market-rate housing affordable to the middle classes.

But the State didn't just go after the traditional NIMBY cities, like Redondo, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and so on. They're even threatening to nuke the zoning of the city of Los Angeles. And LA City did a pretty good job of assembling a rezoning plan. (I suspect that now that the recall stupidity is over, Gov. Newsom feels no need to be cautious.)

The State is putting everyone on blast, for real. They're doing it far more aggressively than even I had hoped to see.

OKAY, FINE, BUT WHAT SHOULD A GOOD ZONING PLAN LOOK LIKE?

There's going to be a lot of bitching and moaning in LA local government about these rezoning plans, but it's not even that hard to put together a rezoning plan that allows for pleasant old-school neighborhoods. It's basically:

1. Small apartment buildings and SF-style row houses legalized everywhere.

2. Mid-sized apartment buildings near train stations.

3. More towers downtown.

4. Automatic approval within 60 days of anything that meets the zoning law and the building code.

5. Abolishing the mandatory parking law. (LA's current mandatory minimum parking laws require most office and apartment buildings to be 40-50% parking by square footage.)

None of this stuff is crazy talk, because it's the rezoning plan that the city of Sacramento just approved. If Sacramento can figure out how to put together a plan to build lots of new housing, there's no reason why LA can't. But if LA cities can't get their act together like Sacramento did, their zoning is going to get nuked come October.

Sometimes, you fuck around, and you find out. It couldn't happen to better people.


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