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LA Zoning Laws: Disastrous for its Economy and the Climate



Getting around Los Angeles without a car is incredibly frustrating.

We've heard the stories: nightmarish congestion on the 405, blood-curdling traffic at LAX, and $50 Ubers to go out for dinner. It doesn't have to be like this. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle show that, with expanded multi-use land zoning and enhanced walkability, we don't have to rely on cars.

Zoning is the practice of designating pieces of land for certain types of developments. Historically, it has been used to exclude people from housing based on race and income. LA has zoned 80 percent of residential land for single-family homes, meaning that affordable options like duplexes and apartments are banned in those zones. A study by UC Berkeley's Othering and Belonging Institute shows that the dominance of single-family zoning marginalizes low-income people and people of color to regions with less resources.

LA's zoning has negative effects on its economy, climate, and overall attractiveness as a place to live. Single-family zoning makes cities more reliant on cars and less walkable because multi-modal transportation is less easily accessible as potential riders and destinations are more spread out. Our laws have made LA spread out and car-centric.

LA can be better. Mixed-use zoning and multi-family zoning incentivize people to drive less and walk more. At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, Angelenos enjoyed a rare sight: smogless, clear skies, which experts say were brought by reduced vehicle traffic. Higher walkability in cities is also correlated with higher retail spending, increased numbers of job opportunities, and reduced motor-related fatalities. You don't need an urban planning degree to understand why this is true — the more accessible businesses are, the more people will access them.

Opponents of “upzoning,” as the practice is often referred to, assert that opening residential zones to denser developments will decrease property values and destroy quiet neighborhoods. As multi-family units are built, single-family homes might become less attractive, reducing their value. This could have an immense impact on people who have lived in single-family zoned areas for generations. The neighborhoods they have lived in for generations would change dramatically as their property values decrease and less people live in suburban homes. Quiet suburbs would be replaced by high-rise apartments with noisy businesses all over.

Removing single-family zoning could also spur on gentrification. As residential spaces open up to dense developments, real estate developers would rush to build inexpensive apartments that have higher rent; a study shows that the median rent for new apartments is 78 percent higher than the median rent nationwide. This explains the “gentrification apartment” phenomenon, which refers to a particular type of boxy apartment building that is often associated with high rents in low-income neighborhoods. If upzoning just leads to these types of apartments, then getting rid of single-family zoning doesn't make housing more affordable— it just increases prices and kicks people out of their home neighborhoods.

Opponents also argue that upzoning does not account for parking space in dense developments and will reduce the amount of green space in cities. As cities are “densified,” so to speak, room for parking and for green spaces will be replaced by high rises and mixed-use buildings. This could potentially lead to places looking like concrete jungles, like New York City, where single-family zoning is scarce. Parking would be extremely frustrating for people who need to drive, and children and families would not have access to green spaces like there currently are in suburban neighborhoods with single-family zoning.

Many of these fears of multi-use zoning can be alleviated with the right policies. Reduced parking spaces would not be as large of a concern as it is in suburban developments currently, because not as many people would need to drive. Additionally, regulating how and where multi-family and multi-use zoning is placed is important to address affordability, maintain a dynamic city, and regulate noise. Seattle requires developers to offer lower rates in new developments, and San Francisco is known for its abundant green spaces in the city.

LA can be much easier to live in. Rezoning is one of the first steps in this process.


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