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

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For better or for worse, LA’s image is a city of ranch homes and Craftsman bungalows

Aerial view of LA neighborhoods
Just under 50 percent of developable land in LA is zoned for single-family homes.
Getty Images

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.

Now state leaders could shake up that status quo. Lawmakers in Sacramento are considering the latest version of Senate Bill 50, which would force California cities to make plans to build dense transit around housing, or implement zoning changes prescribed in the bill.

Should it pass, it would effectively prevent cities from setting aside land exclusively for single-family homes. In neighborhoods close to transit lines, developers could build four- or five-story apartment complexes; in other areas now zoned for single-family homes, property owners could build up to four units on a parcel of land, rather than just one.

That doesn’t mean developers couldn’t build new single-family homes. But they’d have the option of constructing housing with more units in places they can’t today.

Right now, close to half of all land in the city of Los Angeles is set aside for single-family homes, at the exclusion of apartments or other forms of multifamily housing.

Just under two thirds of land in the city is now zoned to allow residential construction, according to the Department of City Planning. Of that total, more than 75 percent is specifically reserved for single-family homes or duplexes—meaning apartments can only be constructed on plots of land amounting to less than a quarter of the city’s total size.

That’s a fairly typical pattern of land use in California. A 2018 survey of local planning policies released by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley found that most cities devote the majority of developable land to single-family homes. It’s one reason why LA’s suburban-style streets stand in stark contrast to the density of big cities such as New York and Chicago.

But these land use rules weren’t always so rigid.

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. This was by far the most popular form of housing in LA’s sprawling urban environment, but 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,” less than 5 percent of the city’s zoned land was exclusively restricted to single-family homes in 1933.

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 street in Pasadena, typical of those found in Los Angeles.
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. In the 1930s, many Los Angeles neighborhoods were governed by strict racial covenants that barred homeowners from selling or renting to nonwhite residents. These covenants, maintained by neighborhood groups, were far more common and easier to enforce in single-family neighborhoods.

That’s one reason the FHA 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 physical changes and demographic shifts 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 there was plenty of vacant land.

In 1946, when Los Angeles updated its zoning code, 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 know and love today, but they also severely limited available space for new development. Supporters of SB 50 say that’s contributed to the shortage of affordable housing facing the city today.

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

In the 1970s, local leaders constrained new development further, seeking 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, but so has LA’s population. The city is home to roughly 4 million people. As of 2010, it was zoned to hold 4.3 million residents.

The capacity of the city to hold future residents has grown with the rollout of new state laws regulating construction of back houses and in-law units, as well as development incentives aimed at spurring construction of affordable housing near transit.

To accommodate even more 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.

That’s part of what SB 50 would push cities to do, but the bill faces strong resistance from many city officials and community groups. In Los Angeles, local leaders have repeatedly maintained that the bill would deprive local governments of the ability to set their own land use policies. Anti-gentrification activists say the developer-friendly changes it proposes don’t address the needs of communities suffering from the effects of racial segregation.

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

The city of Long Beach eased restrictions in these areas in the 1980s 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 2018 that allowing these apartments was “absolutely a mistake on the city’s part.”

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

Vallianatos says that Los Angeles-area cities need to start thinking more seriously about modest “upzoning,” that is, allowing more dense forms of housing—particularly in areas near transit.

“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.”