Smog was once a crippling problem that plagued Southern California. Forty years ago, almost half the days of the year were classified as “very unhealthy air days”. Yet, over the past 10 years, we have averaged less than four such days a year.
The solution to the problem? Override local regulations — because smog was not a local problem. California created the South Coast Air Quality Management District and successfully fought to impose its own rules on car emissions.
Affordable housing is today’s crippling regional issue. Homelessness is rampant, soaring prices have put home ownership out of reach for most young families and according to the census nearly half of Los Angeles County households have to spend more than 30% of their income to pay their rents or mortgages.
What is the solution ? A key element is to override local regulations, as housing is not a local issue. A new study from UC Berkeley meticulously analyzed zoning maps for every city in Southern California. The bottom line: 78% of residential lots in greater Los Angeles are zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Not only does this stifle production of the range of housing we need; the study authors found that it produced “gross disparities where communities are stratified by race and class.”
Lawyer and researcher Stephen Menendian, co-author of the historical analysis, says local zoning restrictions “serve the interests of some, but not others, cementing unequal opportunity for generations to come. This is the recipe for an unhealthy and dysfunctional society.
Many cities strictly ban everything but single-family housing — and most only allocate tiny fractions of their city to apartment and condominium development. By freezing the status quo favoring those who own their homes, they leverage the power of government to deny them to others.
The study found that restrictive zoning had a strong exclusionary effect: Cities “with the highest percentage of zoned single-family residential areas had the highest percentage of white residents and the lowest percentage of black and latinos” and the highest levels of racial affiliation. segregation “occurred in communities with the highest proportion of single-family zoning”.
“If you have an area where some communities can legislate to maximize their property tax revenue while minimizing their cost of providing services, that leaves areas of concentrated poverty, far from jobs, with poorly performing schools and revenue. lower property taxes to support vital services,” observes Menendian.
Leaders in these communities champion what they call “local control” – which translates to local control over resources and opportunities. This control is exercised on behalf of the privileged residents of these communities. This leaves local responsibility aside for the broader needs of society, the region and those who do not have access to these resources and opportunities.
“At the heart of our company,” says Menendian, “is the belief that we live in a land of opportunity. To achieve this ideal, it is essential to have access to safe environments, good schools and clean water and air. If local cities can impede access to these resources, we all lose.
Back then, despite its deadly impact on human health, smog was seen as an inevitable byproduct of living in a prosperous society with its cars, trucks and factories. It took decades of bare-knuckle political strife to overcome opposition to policies aimed at reducing sources of pollution and mandating healthier lifestyles. The housing crisis forces the same kind of showdown: it is time to reduce the sources of segregation and impose equitable access to housing opportunities.
Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and deputy mayor of Los Angeles and has served as city manager in Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.