Should California Get Rid of Single-Family Zoning?

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Good morning.

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When I recently asked Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles about his stance on S.B. 50, the legislation that would have allowed more apartment construction near transit, he said it wouldn’t be a good fit for the city.

S.B. 50, he told me, would threaten the character of existing neighborhoods. And L.A., the state’s largest city, already builds more than its fair share of new housing compared with other cities in the county, he said.

This week, though, Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui, my colleagues at The Upshot, reported that apartments and townhomes — anything other than detached, single-family houses — are banned from 75 percent of L.A.’s residential land.

All of which raises the question: When you’re dealing with a housing crisis, should a city even have single-family zoning? As Emily and Quoctrung reported, that’s a question cities across the nation are grappling with.

I asked Emily to dive a little deeper into what they learned about California. In L.A., at least, things weren’t always this way, she wrote:

In 1960, about 2.5 million people lived in the city of Los Angeles, but 10 million theoretically could. The city had the zoning capacity for that many residents — developers could legally build enough apartments to house them, neighborhoods were planned to accommodate that much growth.

Then L.A. began to reimagine itself in ways that constrain the city today.

L.A. and many California communities began the steady process of “downzoning”: converting land that allowed courtyard apartments to just fourplexes, fourplexes to duplexes, large-lot single-family homes to even-larger-lot single-family homes.

“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said Greg Morrow, executive director of the Real Estate Development and Design program at Berkeley, who has studied the development history of Los Angeles. “You’re just taking a little bit out each time.”

[Read the full story and see the maps here.]

Within 20 years, according to Mr. Morrow’s research, the city’s zoning capacity had been cut to just under 4 million people. And that number has barely kept pace since with actual population growth.

Today, many families are doubling up or paying far more than they can afford for a place to live.

This history — and the current zoning map that The Times has reproduced — portrays a clearer picture of the housing shortage in California. It’s not just that the state hasn’t built enough housing over the years; California communities have made it illegal to build much of the housing that was once possible.

S.B. 50 would have significantly changed that. But the proposal, from State Senator Scott Wiener, is just one of several from officials across the country who are starting to rethink single-family zoning entirely.

“If you look back at early attempts to downzone,” Mr. Morrow said, “they really were almost driven by this naïve belief that if you just downzoned, you could stop population growth.”

In L.A., that clearly did not happen.

(We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.)

• Wednesday was Juneteenth. A House panel had a historic discussion about a bill that could pave the way for reparations for African-Americans. It’s supported by almost 60 House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as several presidential candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris. [The New York Times]

The Times asked all of the Democratic presidential candidates the same 18 questions. (Except Joseph R. Biden Jr., who declined to participate.) [The New York Times]

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• For the second time in two weeks, federal authorities announced a crackdown on a notorious prison gang. Last time, it was the Aryan Brotherhood. On Wednesday, they said they’d arrested 96 members and associates of Nuestra Familia in Central California. [The Fresno Bee]

• At Facebook’s “worst-performing” content moderation site, workers were not only made to watch horrific, violent videos, but also had to endure horrific, filthy working conditions, former employees said. A man died at his desk and was scarcely mentioned again, according to this long read. [The Verge]

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• The utility also said it would permanently shut down the transmission line that started the Camp Fire. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

• Officials identified Phyllis Salazar, 72, of Paradise, as one of the 85 people killed in the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest blaze. She was the 78th person to be positively identified. Two are still unknown, and five have been tentatively identified. [The Chico Enterprise-Record]

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“I start with the notion that Latino art is American art,” Eduardo Díaz, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, told my colleague Concepción de León.

But as Concepción reports in this beautiful visual piece, that’s not how Latinx and Chicanx artists’ work has always been treated.

Things are changing, and more avenues have opened up for artists like Rafa Esparza, a Los Angeles artist who uses adobe bricks that his father taught him to make in his installations.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.



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