L.A. proposal to increase affordable housing stirs questions about growth

  • Posted on 30 September 2004
  • By Beth Steckler

In April, Los Angeles City Council members Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti unveiled a proposal to require that a portion of all new homes and apartments built in the city be made affordable to working people. The proposal, known as inclusionary zoning, has spurred a debate about how, where, and whether new housing should be constructed in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Although the proposal is backed by a diverse coalition of 80 local groups, it has met with resistance from residents who oppose more density in their neighborhoods.

To grow or not to grow?

Understandably, many people feel their neighborhoods are 'built out' and question the need for growth. California is facing a severe housing crisis brought on in large part because housing construction has not kept pace with either population or job growth. According to the California Budget Project, during the 1990s California fell short of its new housing construction needs by over 100,000 units per year. It's a similar story on job creation. Los Angeles County added 5.2 jobs for every new apartment or house since 1994-over three times the recommended ratio of 1.5 jobs for each home. Not building homes has not stopped population or job growth and has instead pushed up housing prices dramatically while fueling sprawl.

Is there more sprawl in our future?

High housing costs in Los Angeles have pushed many working families to look for more affordably priced homes on the urban fringe. With lower land costs and little opposition to new development, developers can respond by building low-density subdivisions on undeveloped land in Santa Clarita, Fontana, Temecula, or Victorville. What is not part of these calculations is the cost to taxpayers of new and expanded freeways and roads, increased traffic congestion, increased air pollution, and the loss of open space.

Why is increased density an important environmental issue?

Since World War II, the model for new development in California has been the low-density suburban housing tract. Although California still has a significant amount of open space, land is not an unlimited resource. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, about 1,950 square miles of rural land in California-an area more than four times the size of the city of Los Angeles-were developed in the 15 years between 1982 and 1997.

Similarly, our dependence on automobiles has created a major environmental problem, accounting for about half the air pollution in the Los Angeles basin. Low-density communities separated from jobs, schools, and shopping offer few transportation alternatives to privately owned cars.

An alternative vision for growth

The smart growth alternative calls for building on vacant land, obsolete industrial land or distressed commercial areas closer to where the jobs and public transportation are. Such an 'infill' approach saves taxpayers the costs of expensive freeway construction, makes public transportation an efficient and workable option for more people, preserves open space, and at least doesn't aggravate our air quality. It sounds logical, but in practice infill developers often face stiff neighborhood opposition, particularly to increased density-which many residents believe will exacerbate traffic and harm their community.

What does inclusionary zoning have to do with density?

At the crux of the inclusionary zoning debate is a 'density bonus' for developers which would allow them to build more units on a parcel of land. The idea is to offset the cost of the affordable units with the density bonus. Under current state law developers are entitled to a 25 percent bonus over the density allowed in the zone if some of the units are set aside as affordable. Los Angeles goes one step further and currently allows a 35 percent density bonus if the development is located near transit.

The Reyes/Garcetti proposal seeks to reinforce Los Angeles' policy of directing new construction to areas that have decent public transit service by offering an additional 15 percent density bonus in transit areas only. The proposal recognizes that building up near transit is a more environmentally sound way to deal with growth and the shortage of affordable housing.

Unfortunately, residents in some communities oppose increasing density, focusing on the very local impact on traffic and ignoring the environmental cost to the region. While in some cases a new infill development may increase the level of traffic on a particular street, the benefit to the regional environment of more people living closer to jobs and commercial areas and foregoing long commutes in their cars is much greater. In addition, studies show that over time, people living in denser, mixed-use neighborhoods drive less and own fewer cars.

From every perspective-economic, social, and environmental-the answer is clear. Creating denser, mixed-use communities with good public transportation is a smarter way to build more affordable homes and apartments for our growing population.

Beth Steckler is the policy director for Livable Places, a nonprofit housing developer and policy organization.

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