|This modestly-scaled two-story apartment building on Scott Avenue in Whittier, CA would not be buildable under many suburban zoning codes that exist today. Image: Los Angeles County Assessor.|
Los Angeles County is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. 59.8% of LA County renters and 50.5% of homeowners with a mortgage pay over 30% of their income on housing . Paying over 30% of your income on housing, in the eyes of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, creates a cost burden that can make it hard to pay for other necessities like food, health care, transportation, etc. . Yikes!
Zoning regulations have a profound impact on where and even whether new housing can be built to meet this demand. Sometimes the rules can kill the feasibility of a project altogether. The more cynical among us might even say that zoning is sometimes consciously designed to kill projects that are less politically favored, such as multifamily housing (apartments, townhomes, duplexes, etc.). For some, apartments are associated with poverty, people of color, crime, traffic and loss of neighborhood character, and these fears become part of a narrative which tries to justify excluding multifamily housing from a community. Multifamily housing is especially important in areas like LA County. Because land here is very valuable, in order for housing to be affordable to lower or even moderate-income folks, the cost of that expensive land has to be split over many housing units for the price of that housing to be within reach.
The building above can be used to illustrate how zoning can kill (or allow) multifamily housing developments. According to the Los Angeles County Assessor's website, the building contains 10 housing units and was built in 1958 . The lot size is 11,600 square feet, yielding a density of 37.6 dwelling units per acre (or 92.8 dwelling units per hectare for the metric parts of the world; for reference, typical suburban densities for detached houses run from about 4 to 10 units per acre). Aerial photos and Google Maps street view reveal that this is a two-story structure with a parking lot in the rear. The parking lot has 11 motor vehicle spaces. If you were writing a zoning code to allow this type of building you could say something like "one parking space per unit is required plus 10% for guest parking" or not set a parking minimum at all. Many zoning codes that exist today require more than one parking space per unit for apartments and townhomes. In fact, Whittier's zoning code requires two spaces per unit today (WMC Section 10.25.070). Let that sit in for a second. Under today's code, this building would require at least 20 parking spaces if it were being built as a new project (maybe more, I'm not an expert on this code). Look at the aerial photo. How could you fit nine more parking spaces on that site? You can't. Not without demolishing the building and starting over. You'd probably have to design the building as a three-story structure with a ground floor dedicated to parking, thus dramatically increasing construction costs, assuming the zoning would even allow you to build that tall. Let's not forget that some people live alone (25.6% of LA County households) or have no vehicles available (9.8% or LA County households) , yet every newly constructed apartment is required to have two off-street spaces. Crazy, right? Not if you care more about potential parking spillovers than you do about affordable housing. I can't believe I'm writing this, but we had much more reasonable rules back in 1958!
Another way zoning codes can kill apartment projects is by requiring large amounts of open space. I know what you're thinking. Isn't open space a good thing? Well sure it's a good thing. But if you require hundreds of square feet of open space per unit in a multifamily project, the practical effect will be to reduce the number of units that can be built. A normal balcony is about 50 square feet. Requiring much more open space per unit than that can cause feasibility problems as architects struggle to accommodate building footprints, setbacks, parking, driveways and open space on a finite site. Why not let people decide for themselves how much open space they need and let the market respond to that, instead of mandating it through government regulation?
These are just a couple of examples of how zoning is blocking badly-needed multifamily housing. The only way it will change is if lots of everyday people wake up and start demanding something better from their local elected officials, city by city, across LA County and across the country.
 2010-2014 American Community Survey, Table DP04 via American FactFinder
 "Affordable Housing", HUD Website
 Los Angeles County Assessor's Website
 American FactFinder, Tables S2501 and DP04