Single-family homes cover almost half of Los Angeles—here’s how that happened

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Los Angeles is known for its charming residential streets, lined with grassy parkways and dotted with single-family homes.

There are condo towers and courtyard apartments—but for better or for worse, LA’s image is a city of ranch homes and Craftsman bungalows.

It’s an image that was cemented by decisions that city planners and elected officials made in the decades following LA’s early 20th century boom years, when the city was growing most quickly.

Last month, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson blamed LA’s affordable housing crisis on its abundance of single-family neighborhoods.

Today, close to half of all developable land in the city is still set aside for single-family homes, not apartments or other forms of housing that could hold more people.

Just under two thirds of land in the city of Los Angeles is now zoned to allow residential construction, according to the Department of City Planning. Of that total, more than 75 percent is reserved for single-family homes or duplexes.

Other U.S. cities dedicate similarly large portions of land to single-family housing, but LA’s suburban-style streets stand in stark contrast to the density of big cities such as New York and Chicago.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1920, the city introduced its first zoning code, which put LA’s available land into five categories of land use, including single-family home construction. Though this was by far the most popular form of housing in LA’s sprawling urban environment, few parts of the city were off limits to larger projects.

As Andrew Whittemore, professor of land use and environmental planning at the University of North Carolina, points out in his essay “Zoning Los Angeles: a brief history of four regimes,” in 1933, less than 5 percent of the city’s zoned land was exclusively restricted to single-family homes.

Most residential properties at that time fell under a more flexible zoning designation that allowed for many different types of construction—including the bungalow courts and small multifamily buildings that can still be found alongside single-family homes in older neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Hollywood, and Venice.

But LA’s zoning rules became much more restrictive in the following decades.

By 1970, almost half the city was zoned for single-family use only, according to Greg Morrow, director of UC Berkeley’s Real Estate and Design program.


A typical Los Angeles street, lined with trees and dotted with single-family homes.
Liz Kuball

What happened?

In 1934, Congress passed the National Housing Act, creating the Federal Housing Administration. The new government agency promoted homeownership by guaranteeing home loans with long repayment periods that lenders might have otherwise been unwilling to give (prior to this time, buyers usually had to pay off home loans within five years, meaning that monthly mortgage payments were quite high).

Since taxpayers would be on the hook if buyers failed to pay back these government-backed mortgages, the FHA went to great lengths to minimize the risk of the loans.

Part of that, as Whittemore explains an article published in the Journal of Urban History, meant shying away from loans in neighborhoods that weren’t deemed “safe investment areas.”

To the agency, safe areas for investment were often those where residents were almost entirely white, as redlining maps from the era clearly illustrate. But racial demographics weren’t the only determining factor.

The FHA (now part of Carson’s own department) also at this time discouraged loans in areas where commercial buildings and apartment complexes abutted single-family homes—the idea being that a mix of building types made the neighborhood more susceptible to changes that could negatively affect property values.

In response to these lending policies, city planners across the United States sought to make urban neighborhoods more homogenous, clearly separating building types and creating lot size and setback requirements to make single-family neighborhoods as safe for investment as possible.

The effects of this were particularly felt in cities like Los Angeles, where plenty of land was still available for new developments.

In 1946, when Los Angeles updated its zoning code (creating the system still in use today), the city’s single-family zones were more fully defined—with nearly three pages of restrictions and regulations. Separate classifications were also created for duplexes and “suburban zones,” with similar parking and yard-size requirements.

These zoning rules helped to create the neatly arranged residential communities Angelenos today know and love, but they also severely limited available space for new development. That’s become a pressing concern as LA deals with a severe shortage of affordable housing.

“We’re clinging to this model—the old version of the American Dream,” housing advocate Mark Vallianatos tells Curbed. “It doesn’t make sense to reserve large portions of any city for only one home with a yard and just one family.”

Compounding the housing shortage is the legacy of plans for the city’s development made in the 1970s, when residents and local leaders sought to slow LA’s growth by limiting the amount of housing that developers could build.

As Morrow points out, Los Angeles was zoned to hold up to 10 million residents in 1960. By 1990, the city had capacity for just 3.9 million residents.

Today, that number has increased slightly but so has LA’s population—the city is home to roughly 4 million people. As of 2010, it was zoned to hold just 4.3 million residents.

To accommodate future residents, Vallianatos says single-family neighborhoods could be “sensitively densified.” Planners could allow property owners in these areas to build triplexes and fourplexes there—buildings that allow more people to live in these communities without sacrificing their low-slung character.

But that would likely garner strong resistance from homeowners, who fought hard to preserve, and even expand, LA’s single-family zones when the city introduced its community plans in the 1970s.

Likewise, Los Angeles planners are probably keenly aware of the political risk of tampering with zoning rules in single-family areas.

In the 1980s, the city of Long Beach eased restrictions in these areas to spur construction of affordable housing. Capitalizing on loopholes in this policy, developers replaced historic bungalows with hastily constructed apartment buildings, which critics derisively referred to as “crackerboxes.”

Discussing the city’s new Land Use Element, which will regulate future development, Long Beach planning bureau manager Linda Tatum said in March that allowing these apartments was “absolutely a mistake on the city’s part.”

In Land Use Element maps approved by the Long Beach City Council earlier this year, not a single one of the city’s single-family neighborhoods was altered in any way.

LA officials have shown some willingness to tamper with single-family zoning in areas near transit. In July, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a plan to adjust the zoning of several single-family blocks near stops on Metro’s Expo Line.

The new zoning rules will allow “neighborhood-scale mixed-use development that creates ground-floor commercial activity” with the “capacity for multifamily housing.”

Vallianatos says that Los Angeles and other nearby cities need to start thinking more seriously about “upzoning,” that is, allowing more dense forms of housing, in order to bring down skyrocketing home prices and reverse the discriminatory policies that kept low-income and non-white residents out of neighborhoods favored by the FHA.

“If you change the zoning a bit, you can keep some of the feel of the neighborhood,” he says. “But you open it up to a much wider diversity of people and ways to live.”

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