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City commissioners OK the vast majority of requests to exceed zoning rules—is that bad?

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Not necessarily

It’s often said that the city “regularly” or “too frequently” allows real estate developers to skirt planning rules in order to erect taller or bigger buildings, but until today, it was impossible to say just how often that happens.

A new analysis of city records by the Los Angeles Times finds that since 2000, the vast majority—or about 90 percent—of real estate developers’ requests for general plan amendments and zoning or height district changes were approved by city commissioners.

So now that we have this figure, what do we make of it?

This number is too high, critics say

It will be easy for supporters of Measure S—the March 7 ballot measure that aims to curtail large-scale development in the city—to use that figure to bolster support for their campaign. They cite these project-specific approvals as examples of developers and city officials breaking the rules and wielding too much influence in City Hall.

Many city officials and planning experts argue the city’s planning guidelines are outdated and need to be updated to reflect the city’s growing population. They say many of the requests for zoning changes are sought—and granted—because the rules are too old.

To address this, and under pressure from Measure S supporters, the Los Angles City Council voted this week to require regular updates to LA’s community plans, which spell out what can and can’t be built in individual neighborhoods.

This number doesn’t tell the whole story

It’s important to consider what impact the approval of these projects had on the city in terms of housing, and what their denial would have meant, policy analyst and Abundant Housing LA communications director Mark Vallianatos told Curbed.

“How many [of these approved projects] were built? How many units were there? ... If we hadn’t have built them, what would have happened to housing prices?” he asks.

Housing prices in LA are high, and many experts agree it’s because there’s a huge housing shortage. A 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that two-thirds of Angelenos can’t afford to rent or buy in the neighborhoods where they live. Sixty percent of renters in the LA metro area pay more than the recommended 30 percent of their income toward housing and are considered “rent burdened.” A USC study published last spring predicted that over the next two years, rents will “soar” and vacancy rates will stay dangerously low.