Cities Don’t Need High-Rises to Become Affordable
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Density” is a word only an urban planner could love. To normal people it’s a synonym for “crowded.” It calls to mind canyons of high-rise apartment buildings that block the light and traffic jams that block the roads. It’s the furthest thing from the California dream of a place in the sunshine with a little outdoor space to call your own.
That’s why 75% of the residential lots in Los Angeles are zoned for single-family, detached homes, with an even higher percentage in the San Fernando Valley and on the jobs-rich Westside. For L.A. to become affordable to people who don’t already own homes or make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, the city needs to put more places to live on that land. It needs to increase the density of its housing. Fortunately, it can do that without giving up sunshine and elbow room.
Contrary to the knee-jerk reactions of old-time Angelenos, the choice need not be between the city’s traditional bungalows and tract homes and high-rise towers or block-spanning apartment projects. In most U.S. cities — and definitely in low-density L.A. — you can significantly increase the number of homes by legalizing what planners call the “missing middle” and normal people actually find appealing.
Take the house with two big orange trees a few blocks from my condo in West L.A. Dating to 1942, it’s the kind of place no one would build today: a duplex, with one three-bedroom apartment and one two-bedroom. From the sidewalk, it looks like a single-family home. Only the two front doors give it away. But if it ever goes on the market, it’s a guaranteed tear-down. On this block, which is zoned for multi-family housing, the land would be too valuable to limit it two units. And, of course, you can’t build a duplex, however charming and well landscaped, on three-quarters of the city’s residential land.
The “missing middle” refers to such small-scale buildings: duplexes, fourplexes, the classic Boston triple-decker, the northeastern row house, and Southern California’s beloved (and vanishing) bungalow courts. Think of them as multi-unit complexes without elevators. If Covid-19 has made elevator buildings scary, the pandemic has also highlighted the risks of cramming large numbers of working adults into a single apartment so they can afford the rent. Legalizing missing-middle housing could address both fears while preserving neighborhoods’ human scale.
The idea is catching on. After nearly six years of debate, Portland, Oregon, recently adopted new rules allowing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in areas previously zoned only for single-family homes. Known as the Residential Infill Project, the new ordinance also permits six-unit complexes if half the units are reserved for low-income residents. The goal there is to enable charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity to scatter new projects throughout the city.
“It lifts a de facto ban on new affordable housing from much of the city,” said Michael Andersen, a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute and a prominent local advocate of the reforms.
“One crucial thing we did was we never used the word ‘density,’ ” Andersen noted. “Sometimes we would use the phrase ‘gentle density.’ ” Planners may love density, especially when combined with mass transit, but it wasn’t the point of the reform. “The benefit is not the density,” Andersen said. “The benefit is the proximity.” Missing-middle complexes will allow more people to shorten their commutes and live in the city’s amenity-rich neighborhoods.
The Portland ordinance includes another crucial reform: deregulating parking. Property owners, not the city, can decide whether and how to offer parking. New missing-middle projects won’t have to have driveways, giving designers greater freedom to use the lot. (Andersen noted that a driveway removes a parking space from the street.)
As the number of units grows, so does the square footage of the building allowed on the lot. “The idea is for that extra square footage to work like a sluice gate for Portland’s housing market, rechanneling investment away from luxury remodels and McMansions and toward new homes that are affordable to the middle class on day one,” Andersen wrote in an August article on the Sightline Institute’s web page. Under the new rules, he envisions new triplexes renting three-bedroom apartments with outdoor space for around $2,500 a month. “That’s on day one,” he said. “In 30 years that will be the bedrock of Portland middle-class to lower-middle-class housing."
Meanwhile, in California, the state senate in June unanimously passed a bill known as SB1120, which would have allowed duplexes by right on most property now zoned for single-family homes. It would have also let an owner split a lot into two, potentially permitting four new units. The state assembly passed its version of the bill just before midnight on Monday night. But with only three minutes to spare, the legislative session ended before the bills could be reconciled. The idea will undoubtedly return in the future.
Establishing “by right” zoning eliminates the endless hearings and appeals that increase housing costs by delaying new projects, even in areas zoned for them. The bill also limits parking requirements to at most one space per unit.
In Los Angeles, the typical requirement today is two spaces, with no tandem parking allowed. That kind of one-size-fits-all requirement significantly raises the cost of housing. It forces most new buildings to construct underground garages, making only large-scale projects with high-priced units economically feasible — yet another way the city eliminates more appealing buildings.
“We’ve done a very good job making missing-middle housing illegal,” said Anthony Dedousis, the director of policy and research for Abundant Housing L.A. Since 2013, he noted, about 65,000 new housing units have been built in the city. Only 11% have between two and nine units. The middle is indeed missing. Filling it back in can alleviate the housing shortage without sacrificing neighborhood charm.
The median household income in Los Angeles County is $64,251. In my relatively affluent westside zip code, it is $83,655. These figures do not account for the effects of Covid-19.
One reason it doesn’t go on the market is that Proposition 13 caps its property taxes at far below what they would be if the property were assessed at the market rate.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World," will be published in November.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.