Big ups to low-income housing

In December 2020, after more than a year of deliberation, Los Angeles County officially implemented an inclusionary housing ordinance aimed at increasing the availability of low-income housing in the area.

This action addresses the statewide housing shortage that is especially potent in more populous areas like LA. As the population booms faster than homes are built, many lower-income residents find themselves paying ever-increasing shares of their income on rent, or moving in with roommates or family members to make ends meet. Here in California, the construction of multi-family buildings with the potential to accommodate a higher density of buyers and renters is falling increasingly behind rising demand.

The ordinance is directed at residential developers in unincorporated areas of LA County, requiring each planned development to set aside a certain percentage of its units as affordable housing — which means these units need to be priced below market rates for households earning less than the median income in the area.

Developers need to abide by the requirements of the ordinance when they include at least five units and are located in specific market regions, depending on whether the development is comprised of rental housing or for-sale housing.

Rental developments with five or more units fall under the ordinance when they are located in:

  • Coastal South Los Angeles;
  • San Gabriel Valley; or
  • Santa Clarita Valley.

For-sale developments with five or more units fall under the ordinance when they are located in:

  • Antelope Valley
  • Coastal South Los Angeles
  • East Los Angeles/Gateway
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • Santa Clarita Valley; or
  • South Los Angeles.

Related article:

Legislative steps toward more affordable housing

The inclusion confusion

As the years-long California housing shortage continues to fester, initiatives like this are one signal that local governments are willing to take action to curb the issue.

But how does this differ from similar regional efforts to increase low-income housing, and is it enough?

Unlike previous zoning initiatives undertaken by the city and the county, this is a mandate — it’s not merely an incentive for builders to produce more low-cost housing.

Think of this move as somewhere between eminent domain (where the local government might seize existing property to construct low-income housing) and a graduated zoning policy. Instead of incentivizing certain types of construction, or re-zoning to allow for a higher density of multi-family units, the county now requires these developers to dedicate a portion of their developments to low-tier housing.

While the prospect should hearten advocates for more low-income housing in the greater LA area, developers subject to the ordinance are less likely to be enthused, citing such initiatives as driving up costs in the long run.

Further, the ordinance is aimed only at land that is already zoned for specific kinds of housing. Absent from this initiative is any plan to amend zoning laws, meaning it fails to strike at the root of California’s housing shortage: overly strict zoning.

It’s one thing to mandate that developers make a certain percentage of the units they build fit into the definition of “affordable housing,” and another to ease up on zoning laws that prevent the construction of multi-family homes where LA County needs them most.

Zoning changes for which firsttuesday has advocated include:

  • looser density and height restrictions to allow for larger multi-unit properties;
  • increased residential zoning in urban areas; and
  • expansion of mixed-use zoning to promote residential development near commercial properties.

Not only will less restrictive zoning ensure a higher density of low-income housing, it will also make it financially beneficial for developers to meet demand.

Unfortunately, this kind of zoning overhaul has long been held hostage by not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocates looking to keep things as they are. But as California’s housing crisis continues, more and more municipalities are likely to adopt policies similar to LA County’s inclusionary housing ordinance — if they haven’t already — and hopefully, more progressive zoning changes down the line.