L.A.’s Land Use Rules Were Born out of Racism and Segregation. They’re Not Worth Fighting For

Mark Vallianatos, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2018


The year my house was built {snip} most of central Los Angeles was zoned so that any type of residence could be built on a piece of land.

These days, about half of the city is zoned for single-family exclusively. It is illegal to have anything except a detached house (and sometimes an accessory unit) on close to 500,000 properties in Los Angeles. Limiting what types of homes are allowed in this way has not only contributed to soaring housing costs, it has also created profound racial and class segregation.


State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) recently introduced a bill that would help change that. SB 827 would relax some local density and height restrictions and parking requirements on land near busy transit stops. In Los Angeles, that would allow small-to-medium-sized apartment buildings to be built on approximately 190,000 single family-zoned lots where such development has been banned for decades. That change could simultaneously take Los Angeles back to the 1920s, when zoning was more flexible, and forward into the 2020s, by allowing the city to grow and adapt to reflect a modern, diverse metropolis.


Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to oppose SB 827. While some council members acknowledged that we need to do more on housing affordability, they also used metaphors like “blowing up” and “chainsawing” neighborhoods to justify rejecting SB 827. Mayor Eric Garcetti argued that SB 827 shouldn’t change single-family-only zoning because apartments wouldn’t “look right” mixed in with detached houses.


But the most cringe-worthy aspect of the “community character” argument is the fact that single-family-only rules are a legacy of racist exclusionary zoning.

In the early 20th century, many private property deeds banned owners from selling to blacks, Asians, Latinos and Jews. However, when Southern cities tried to institutionalize that with explicitly racist zoning rules, the courts struck them down. Single-family-only zoning originated partly as a way around the court’s ruling, a means to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group. Minorities, after all, could usually more easily afford apartment living than home ownership.

Los Angeles added single-family-only zones to its code in 1921, one of the first cities in the nation to divide houses from apartments. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld single-family zones in a 1926 case in Ohio. The majority opinion described apartment buildings as encroaching like “parasites … until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed.”

This type of race- and class-coded language has often been present when people want to restrict multifamily housing. It’s echoed in the fearful rhetoric about drugs, crime and transients we often hear as L.A. tries to fund and build more affordable housing and supportive housing for the homeless.


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