Finally, housing prices in Southern California are falling. According to recent data, house prices fell by $10,000 between May and June. But with median home prices skyrocketing from $679,000 to $760,000 between June 2021 and 2022, the news likely came as cold comfort to those who can’t afford a home.
Even with the recent drop, housing costs in the Golden State are at record highs, a crisis that has pushed homelessness into high gear and forced an estimated 173,000 Californians out of the state.
If these issues were just the hangover from the pandemic-era surge in housing demand, there might not be much to worry about.
But the truth is, Southern California is unapproachable, stagnant, segregated, and sprawling by design.
As I say in a new book“Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” many of our region’s big problems were the inevitable result of a century of bad zoning policy.
Consider housing affordability: According to data provided by the Census Bureau, the Los Angeles metro area allows housing at one-fifth the per capita rate of the Houston metro area. And it’s not just sprawl:
Last year, Los Angeles allowed about the same number of apartments as Houston, although it was much larger.
Unlike Houston, Los Angeles has some of the strictest zoning laws in the country, including prohibiting apartment construction in 75% of residential areas.
This is especially true in the wealthier areas of the region.
For all the technocratic luster superimposed on zoning, arbitrary rules such as minimum lot sizes force fewer and more expensive homes to be built, allowing the state to segregate cities based on income. And despite all of Southern California’s egalitarian ambitions, these segregationist laws are still in effect and enforced throughout the region.
Or take the traffic: If prices are any indication, many Californians might like to ditch their cars and live in walkable neighborhoods. Yet in almost every municipality in Southern California, it is illegal to build stores without parking or apartments without parking, even in areas where public transportation is easily accessible. As UCLA professor Donald Shoup has cogently argued, these warrants can add up to $80,000 to the cost of a new home, while adding to the area’s traffic problems.
Worse still, by not zoning new housing near employment centers, we have effectively caused a kind of modern exodus to the desert. As swanky, job-rich municipalities like Beverly Hills and Coronado have lost population over the past decade – due to their particularly strict zoning rules – nearly all of the area’s growth s is produced in remote Mojave suburbs. As a result, Southern California is now the national leader in grueling 90-minute “super-rides.” At some point, why not just move to Nevada?
If there’s a silver lining, it’s because these destructive zoning policies are a choice. In recent years, cities like San Diego have reduced onerous parking mandates, reforms that could soon apply across California if policymakers pass AB 2097. Old garages or attics — are legal throughout California since 2016. These ADUs now represent one in four homes built in Los Angeles.
These reforms mark an important step forward, curbing the worst excesses of zoning. But why not go further? The California dream isn’t quite dead yet, but if we’re going to keep it alive, it’s time to have deeper conversations about what we want from urban planning. In a state as vast and complex as ours, there are few political panaceas. But if we want to build an affordable, prosperous, integrated, and sustainable Southern California, moving beyond zoning wouldn’t be a bad start.
Mr. Nolan Gray is a research director for California YIMBY and a professional urban planner. He is the author of “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It”.