The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors oversees land use policy for the approximately 1.1 million residents that live in the unincorporated parts of the County. To put that number in perspective, if these unincorporated communities were a city, it would be the third largest in the state behind only Los Angeles and San Diego.
The County historically has an abysmal track record of producing housing. Every jurisdiction in California is given a target number of housing units by the State that they are expected to produce to meet their needs. Between 2006 and 2021 that number for Unincorporated Los Angeles County is 82,386 units. Through 2017, they have only completed 9,905 (12%) of these units. Being such a large and populous jurisdiction, the County can be seen as the poster child for our state’s housing crisis. Enough is enough. Something must be done.
I was very happy to see that the Board of Supervisors recently adopted a motion to instruct the Department of Regional Planning to draft four ordinances to facilitate the development of more housing:
- An ordinance to allow multifamily housing development in commercial zones.
- An affordable housing preservation ordinance to help protect the existing supply of affordable housing.
- An ordinance to streamline the entitlement process for permanent supportive housing including motel conversions.
- An inclusionary zoning ordinance to require market-rate developers to include a small percentage of affordable homes in new developments.
These four ordinances, along with two more that I will propose as mandatory, can fix the county’s housing production issues:
- The creation of an Expedited Processing Unit similar to the one in the City of Los Angeles.
- The appointment of a housing czar that reports directly to the Supervisors who is in charge of making sure all departments are communicating with each other with a shared goal of creating housing.
The County Needs to Create An Expedited Processing Section
The number one reason why the County has not produced housing is that the County doesn’t approve housing, at least in a timely manner. It often takes three-to-five-years to process a subdivision case in unincorporated areas. The County has such a massive case backlog that most developers won’t go through the trouble of building in areas under its jurisdiction. We can’t afford to carry land for the time it takes to approve the housing.
Compare this to the City of Los Angeles, which established an Expedited Processing Section in 2003. Applicants pay an additional fee to receive a public hearing within 90 to 120 days of their case being deemed complete. Using this unit, I often begin construction - planning and building permit approval - inside of ten months from my initial application submittal.
The ordinances proposed by the County, while an important first step, will not fix the problem without being accompanied by an ordinance establishing an expedited section. It is possible that the County currently lacks the staffing and/or funding to do this. Like in L.A. City, the County should charge applicants an appropriate additional fee to cover the costs of additional staffing. We will gladly pay it.
The County Needs a Housing Czar
Development is complicated, especially for larger projects. To approve a project, Departments like Planning, Building and Safety, Public Works, Engineering, Fire, Parks, Water and Power, and Sanitation all must provide input. If these departments are not speaking to one another in a fluid process, it is very easy for approvals to be delayed.
When I study subdivision cases in the County that take years to approve, one common theme is that these Departments won’t clear cases together without multiple return hearings, often over the course of multiple years. It is clear that improved inter-departmental dialogue is needed.
The City of Los Angeles had this same problem; in his first months on the job, Mayor Garcetti committed to fixing it. Improvement was immediate, and today the development process in the City between Departments works better than anywhere I have ever built housing.
Los Angeles County needs a housing czar to coordinate function and communication between the aforementioned departments. The czar should report quarterly to the Board of Supervisors on progress related to case backlog, building permits, and certificates of occupancy.
Ordinance #1 – Allow Multi-Family Housing in Commercial Zones
I applaud the Supervisors for proposing this ordinance. I wrote about this very issue earlier this year. The county has acres of vacant and/or underutilized land on commercial boulevards that don’t currently allow housing. Allow multi-family housing on these lots with an expedite unit, and you will see real progress in meeting your housing goals within a year of passage.
Ordinance #2 and 3 – Affordable Housing Preservation and Streamlining Permanent Supportive Housing
Both are very important. Earlier this year I wrote that the California Legislature should pass a form of the City of Los Angeles’s Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance as statewide law. It is heartening to see the County moving forward with their own ordinance.
Ordinance #4 – Inclusionary Zoning
This is the most controversial of the ordinances. We can talk about how inclusionary ordinances increase the cost of housing. We can discuss how Portland’s new inclusionary ordinance has been a housing killing flop. It doesn’t matter. The Supervisors will not pass housing reform without an inclusionary ordinance. We can only ask that they do it in an elegant way that creates below market rate housing without killing housing projects from starting in the first place. This is not about “profit”, it is about “penciling”.
The motion to write these ordinances says, “affordable housing linkage fees, does not appear to be feasible in most of the unincorporated areas.” The same is true for inclusionary zoning. The best way to write the ordinance is to tie it to a project’s floor area ratio.
Projects with a floor area ratio of less than 1.5:1 should be exempt from providing inclusionary zoning. These projects, almost always made entirely of wood, are not dense enough to benefit from the density bonus ordinance that would provide incentives for including below market rate housing. A developer is building at a lower density for a reason: the lower construction costs are all the market in that area will allow for. These less dense projects are already priced more affordably, and cannot bear additional costs.
Projects with more than a 1.5:1 floor-area ratio have the room to take advantage of the county’s density bonus ordinance. They can finance the construction of the below market rate units with the incentives provided by the density bonus. Tying inclusionary housing to a project’s floor area ratio is a good policy that the Supervisors should strongly consider.
Time is of the essence to pass these ordinances. The county should goal themselves to pass everything in 2018 that doesn’t require an environmental impact report. The faster reform passes, the faster we can start building our way out of this mess.