Did you know that Los Angeles is required by state law to plan to build 456,000 new housing units in the next eight years? And that if enough space can’t be found in areas currently zoned for housing, the city is required to find more space by re-zoning enough areas to make room for the required housing? And that the re-zoning must be done within the next three years?
These and other fascinating facts were provided in a city webinar last week presenting a new draft of the city’s Housing Element of its General Plan, the document that governs planning and development across the city.
The city is required to update the Housing Element every eight years. The most recent update has been in the works since early 2020, and this month the city debuted a first draft of the revised document – dubbed the “Plan to House LA” – in two public webinars. The first of the two sessions was held on July 8, and the second will be held tomorrow, Tuesday, July 13, at 12 p.m. (click here to register if you’d like to attend).
Learning about deeply detailed policy documents may sound like the most boring of today’s many discussions about housing Angelenos and keeping them housed…but this particular discussion, about this particular document, contains a lot of vital information about our overall housing situation, what the state is requiring us to do about it, and how that will happen. It will definitely shape and re-shape our local neighborhoods over the next few years, so it’s worth learning about if you’re interested in housing and development.
As noted above, the Housing Element (or Plan to House LA), is part of the city’s General Plan, which also contains a Mobility Element, Health Element, Safety Element, and more. The Housing Element also works in concert with the city’s 35 area-specific Community Plans, and local zoning, to determine what gets built where throughout the city.
According to presenter Jackie Cornejo, representing the Department of City Planning and the Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) at the first of the two webinars, the Housing Element is governed by a state law established in 1969 to make sure individual cities “do their fair share” in planning for “adequate affordable housing” for their residents. The state sets the number of housing units required by each city, based on a process called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA, or – as it’s pronounced in planning circles – “reena”). And there are penalties for cities that don’t meet their state-mandated RHNA targets every eight years. (This is why the Housing Element is updated every eight years, to plan for each new set of state-mandated housing targets.)
Cornejo reported that LA’s latest Housing Element update process was launched early in 2020, and since then there have been many public meetings for input and feedback, publication of some initial concepts for the update, and now the release of the first draft of the new document. Public feedback on the new draft will be taking place for the next few weeks, followed by public discussions and votes by the City Planning Commission, City Council Plum Committee, and the full City Council this fall. The new plan, according to state law, must be adopted by the end of October.
The goals of the Plan to House LA are several, addressing both supply and equity issues:
The Housing Element itself contains six chapters, covering how the city figures out how much housing it needs, “constraints and opportunities” for building more housing, conservation issues, determining sites for new housing, analyzing how well the previous plan served the city, and setting objectives, policies and more for the new draft.
Housing Needs Assessment
Cornejo explained that the provisions of the updated Housing Element are based on a very detailed Housing Needs Assessment, looking at population characteristics, income and employment trends, household characteristics, existing housing stock, housing costs, the state-mandated RHNA, and goals for building more affordable housing. The assessment helps determine how much new housing is needed and for whom. This section also contains a lot of fascinating information about our current housing situation.
And as we’ve heard in many housing-related presentations over the last few years, from many sources, this data is sobering.
According to Cornejo, Los Angeles is currently both “the most rent-burdened major city in the country” and “the most overcrowded major city in the country.” Almost 60% of our residents pay more rent than they should, based on their incomes, and about 13% live in overcrowded conditions.
Also, reported Cornejo, LA has the fewest number of homes per adult in the country, and would need at least 130,000 more homes to reach the U.S. average per adult. Median home prices now top $860,000, and median rents for a 2-bedroom apartment stand at $2,750 per month.
Meanwhile, while median income in LA grew 27% from 2010-2019, most local jobs still pay only about $27,000 per year, putting our average housing prices well out of reach for many individual residents. (For example, a personal care assistant making the average salary of just under $25,000 can afford only $600 per month in rent – far below average prices.)
According to Cornejo, this means that most young adults, especially, can no longer afford to live independently in the city. In fact, while there are 75,000 more young adults now than in the previous review period, she said, there are now 5,000 fewer households in this age range. And home ownership for people under the age of 45 has declined by 25%…while the number of renter households increased by 72,000.
Also, Cornejo noted, population increases and decreases are not uniform across the city, so some areas are currently in much greater need of new housing, mostly in lower income and less advantaged communities.
Based on the map above, this also means that communities of color are particularly hard hit by current housing issues. Both Latinx and Black households are much more likely than white and Asian households to be paying more than they can afford for rent or mortgages…and those populations also make up the largest percentages of unhoused residents.
And finally, said Cornejo, it’s important to note that not all neighborhoods have the same kinds of resources and opportunities for their residents. In fact, some of the most advantaged neighborhoods, which provide the greatest opportunities and resources for those who live in them, have actually built the least amount of new housing over the past few decades…which may make them good candidates for new housing development. Also, putting more affordable units in those more advantaged communities would likely benefit newer low income residents, who were previously confined by economics to communities with fewer resources and opportunities.
So what challenges does the city face in building more new housing, and building it in specific areas? According to City Planner Matt Glesne, who picked up the narrative from Cornejo at this point in last week’s presentation, there are several barriers to building new housing in Los Angeles. They including finding land that’s currently zoned for housing (especially affordable housing) or large amounts of housing, lack of funding for affordable housing projects (which are less lucrative and thus less attractive than market-rate developments for private developers ), the cumbersome process and high cost of project approvals, increasing construction costs, and neighborhood opposition to new housing developments, especially in low-density neighborhoods. So the city must look at each of these factors when planning to increase housing production.
The first step, of course, is figuring out how much new housing we need.
According to Glesne, it all starts with the RHNA – the number of required new housing units assigned by the state. In the previous 8-year period, from 2013-2021, LA was required to build a total of 82,002 units overall, with 32,862 of those officially reserved for low income residents. And LA did actually exceed that overall target – building more than 117,000 housing units in the last seven years. But it did not meet the target for new affordable units.
Glesne reported that the city has been making even further progress increasing new housing construction in the last few years, especially in the construction of affordable units (which are now incentivized through programs such as Transit Oriented Communities). But the number of new affordable units is still far smaller than the number we need.
So the city’s target numbers for the next eight years will take a huge jump from the last eight years. As noted above, Los Angeles will now be required to build 456,643 new units in the next eight years, with 184,721 of those reserved for low income tenants.
Also, going a bit further to make sure the targeted number is actually adequate, the city has added a 10-15% buffer to the state numbers, making the official target even higher – 486,379 units overall.
And to meet this target, we will have to permit a very ambitious average of 57,000 new units per year (currently we’re approving about 20,000 per year).
Adequate Sites for New Housing
So now that the city has its target number for new housing units over the next eight years, it has to figure out where to put them, and that’s determined by a detailed selection process for “Adequate Sites” for new housing, based on current zoning.
According to another state law, “Adequate Sites” for new housing include those with “demonstrated potential” for re-development in the next eight years. Sites do not have to be vacant to be considered (and the state acknowledges that most potential sites in a fully-built city like LA will not be vacant)…but, said Glesne, the state does recognize that an already-developed site is less likely to be available for new development than one that’s currently empty. Also, the state says that potential development parcels should be considered for their “realistic capacity,” and not necessarily their maximum density, which also can mitigate how much housing can be considered for specific sites.
Finally, it’s important to note that just because the city identifies a site as a potential location for new housing, it doesn’t mean new development there is a sure thing. Potential housing sites also have to comply with current affordable housing replacement policies…though they would also be fast-tracked for approval if they set aside 20% of their units as officially “affordable” (a much higher percentage than the city’s Transit Oriented Communities program, which generally requires 10-15% of new units be designated as affordable).
Using the “Adequate Sites” approach, Glesne said, the city can more easily figure out how many new housing units can be built under the city’s current zoning.
And according to the city, based on this information – and counting sites available for new developments not yet proposed, projects already in the pipeline, expected ADU construction, public land and development programs, and expected development of the Warner Center area – we should be able to find space under current zoning laws for 266,647 new housing units.
But this is still 219,732 units short of our 486,379 unit construction target.
So this means the city has to make more space for housing, most likely by re-zoning areas where housing is currently not allowed for one reason or another, by up-zoning current low density areas to allow more units to be built there, or by re-zoning to allow construction specifically of affordable developments where they’re not currently allowed by law.
And, according to the law, this rezoning must be done over the next three years – by 2024.
Of course, though, re-zoning is always tricky. If you ask people which areas they’re prefer to re-zone or up-zone, for example, you’ll get many different answers. At the webinar, the Planning representatives presented this very choice to members of the audience, and the audience’s first choice for areas to up-zone or re-zone were those near jobs and transportation – exactly the areas currently targeted by the city’s current Transit Oriented Communities development program (which is already controversial in many communities for allowing too much development near low-density residential areas, and producing too little affordable housing per development). But the poll choices made it clear that many other possibilities are also on the table, including commercial and residential corridors (Boulevards and Avenues), existing lower density areas (especially for lower-density and “missing middle” multifamily housing), certain industrial areas, and “public and religious-owned land.”
So nothing is set in stone yet, beyond the basic need established in the Plan, and the specific re-zoning discussions will come later, after the plan is approved. But it will surely spark a lot of attention over the next few years, as the Plan to House LA takes its place as a key part of local housing policy. We will be following it closely, and recommend that others do, too.
Learning More…and Next Steps
If you’d like to learn more about the Plan to House LA, and the kinds of changes that may be coming to our local zoning and development process, plan to attend the city’s second webinar on the draft, tomorrow, Tuesday, July 13, at 12 p.m., or watch the recording of the completed webinar .
A couple of FAQ documents are also available, explaining more about the RHNA, selection of new housing sites, and re-zoning to create more room for new housing…and what the plan covers overall.
If you have more questions, or would like to submit comments on the plan, contact [email protected] Comments will be accepted until September 9.
(One final note: an update on a new draft of the city’s Safety Element (which deals with disaster planning), and a set of new amendments to the current Health Element are also included in these webinar, but those sections are brief and the vast majority of the presentation will be devoted to the Housing Element/”The Plan to House LA”.)
[Note: this story was updated after publication to correct the opening sentence, and the percentage of the buffer the city added to the total housing units that must be planned.]