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Fixing California’s Housing Crisis: An Interview with Nolan Gray

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

“To understand how land use regulation can help save California from the dystopian future it is currently facing, I spoke with Nolan Gray, an urban planner and outspoken land use policy wonk.”

California might be the best place to live in the world—if you can afford it. And if one does not mind the traffic, the growing issue of homelessness, and the ever-present danger of droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes.

While the list of serious issues facing California is long, there are solutions. A surprising number of the solutions all come back to housing affordability. Traffic can be improved by building more homes near workplaces. Homelessness can be improved by building more shelters and by ensuring that fewer people end up homeless in the first place. And the danger of wildfires can be decreased by keeping urban housing prices low so people do not feel the need to move into rural areas directly threatened with decimation each fire season.

To understand how land use regulation can help save California from the dystopian future it is currently facing, I spoke with Nolan Gray, an urban planner and outspoken land use policy wonk. Gray is currently finishing a Ph.D. in urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles and is an affiliated scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. In addition to his active YIMBY Twitter presence, Gray has written for The Atlantic and the Orange County Register and is currently working on a book on zoning laws called Arbitrary Lines.

This interview, conducted over the telephone, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

California has this long list of issues: housing costs, traffic, homelessness, running out of water, poor public transit, old infrastructure, etc. Is there any California city that you think actually does a good job of addressing some of these issues?

I don’t know if there’s any California city that I would wholistically say gets this right. It’s exciting what’s happening in Sacramento and in certain towns in the Bay Area where they’re phasing out single family zoning or they’ve eliminated their minimum parking requirements. I think those things are huge steps in the right direction. 

Stepping outside of California, it’s exciting to see all the liberal land use conversation that’s happening from a zoning perspective. I always point to Houston as a really fascinating example of a city that doesn’t have zoning and the sky hasn’t fallen. You know, Houston works pretty well, and housing there remains pretty affordable even despite hundreds of thousands of people moving there. 

From the transportation side of it, I’m not as much of an expert on this; my focus is on land use planning, but I think what we’re seeing right now in a place like New York is they’re trying to adopt congestion pricing in Manhattan, and I think that’s something that Los Angeles should be watching very closely. Congestion pricing—there’s really no way around it. In Los Angeles, the 405 is already like, what, 15 lanes wide? You’re not going to add more lanes and solve this problem. So, a city like Los Angeles really needs to look at some of the experiments that Manhattan is running right now. But also in states like Florida and Texas—they’ve had toll lanes for decades, and it works, and they’re popular.

If you could do anything, what would your plan be for improving the housing crisis in Los Angeles?

There are three central policies when it comes to exclusionary zoning. The first is single family zoning, which says you can only have a single family home in something like 70% of Los Angeles. There is really no health or safety justification for that. It’s purely exclusionary, and it perpetuates housing scarcity. I think—at a minimum—you should allow a fourplex in all residential zones. So, that’s one thing I would change, and that’s something that’s already happening across California, which I think is really exciting. 

The second is minimum parking requirements. This is where the zoning code says if you want to build an apartment complex, you have to have two off-street parking spaces. Or, if you want to build an office building, for every thousand square feet, you have to have so many parking spaces. These rules basically increase the cost of everything; they write auto-dependence into law, and they basically destroy the public realm. They basically close the door to anyone living without a car. 

So, I would scrap minimum parking requirements. We’re probably going to get statewide reform on that soon. There’s a bill, AB1401, which is proposing to eliminate parking requirements within a half mile of transit. I think that’s a fantastic first step. And I would just eliminate them citywide. And that’s not to say there’s going to be no parking in Los Angeles. Los Angeles will be a car-oriented city in our lifetime. It’s just to say that, let developers and the renters or buyers of the property determine how much parking is necessary, not the zoning code. 

And the third one: minimum lot sizes. In many parts of Los Angeles, not only can you only build a single-family home, but you can only build a single-family home on a pretty large lot. In a context where you have sewer and water installed, there’s no health and safety justification for this. It’s purely setting a consumption floor, which raises home prices and ultimately excludes people who are not wealthy enough to afford that amount of land. It basically mandates sprawl, and it mandates single-family homes on large estates. 

Does this also apply to San Francisco, or would you add or subtract anything?

I think the problem is actually a little easier to solve in a place like Los Angeles because zoning is so transparently bad. In a context like San Francisco, it’s a little bit more complicated; it gets down to density rules. So, in many parts of San Francisco, apartments are theoretically allowed. I mean, don’t get me wrong, San Francisco eliminated parking requirements, but there’s still single-family zoning. So, the real problem is density restrictions. Maybe you can build a multifamily residence here, but it’s not going to be a very tall building, or you can’t have too many units on the property. And San Francisco is in a position more like New York, where the city needs to be taking underbuilt buildings and turning them into larger, denser buildings, and density restrictions are really a problem.

Are there any legitimate critiques to dialing back exclusionary zoning and increasing density?

People implicitly have an idea when they buy a home that they are buying into the neighborhood as it exists the moment they buy it. And they get very scared when the community changes. We talk a lot about how people NIMBY on the basis of protecting their property values. If you own a house in San Francisco, then the status quo works for you. You’re getting richer by doing nothing. 

But I don’t think that’s the key reason why people engage in NIMBY policy. I think it really is a very sentimental thing where people are just scared of change. I think it’s a legitimate concern that people have. You know, they don’t like to see change, and you can’t really argue with that. 

Also, I think people make fair arguments that when you have growth or you have new housing development, in some cases the public services don’t keep up, and so there’s a temporary reduction in quality of life. So, if you have a school and the school is at capacity and you build a little bit more housing, you’ll get overcrowding but maybe not enough to build a whole new school. That’s a minor reduction in quality of life. Or, more people might involve more noise or more trash on the street, and, in many cases, city governments aren’t very effective at dealing with that.

I do think that one of the ways that cities can deal with people who are concerned about their quality of life going down when more development happens is to make sure that public services scale. If a whole bunch of people are moving into an area, the city should require a little bit more open space and make sure that it’s well maintained. Or, expand a local school or expand a local library. Or, if people are worried about parking and traffic, cities should have effective parking management and congestion management.

As an advocate for urban growth, what do you think of Matt Yglesias’s book One Billion Americans? I mean, on a technical level, could Los Angeles ever become Tokyo, or is there some fundamental reason why American cities will cap out and not be able to take in more people?

I tend to be pretty optimistic on this. As Julian Simon, the economist, put it: The ultimate resource is the human mind. The history of humanity is the history of people saying, “We’re hitting our natural limit; we’re running out of this or that,” and then basically humanity just smashes through that barrier. I think that there are global considerations that have to be made for things like climate change that are important. 

But you asked specifically about Los Angeles. In the Los Angeles context, people say there’s just not enough water. And I think, yeah, water is a big challenge that we need to solve. But these are solvable problems. There’s clearly enormous demand among Americans and people all over the world to live in Los Angeles. Moving to Los Angeles makes you exponentially more productive, and the weather’s great. We shouldn’t take this defeatist attitude that stands in the way of Los Angeles’ growth. 

It’s funny to me that people say we can’t have any more growth in Los Angeles because Los Angeles doesn’t have enough water. Okay, well, we haven’t been building any housing in Los Angeles basically for decades; where did all the housing go? It didn’t go to places that had a lot of water. It went to Las Vegas, and it went to Phoenix. So, the people who say we can’t allow growth in this city or that city because of a resource restraint or a political challenge, I would say that doesn’t really solve the problem; it just shifts the problem. 

Rather than taking a defeatist attitude about growth in Los Angeles, I would say it’s incumbent on planners to see that people have this preference; they want to live in Los Angeles, so let’s get the prices right. Let’s build the infrastructure, and let’s make it through. That’s the perspective I take. 

I spend some time in Silicon Valley, and there is so much space down there. I mean, any one of those little towns along the peninsula could become a huge metropolitan city if it chose to. There’s a lot of money, and there’s tons of industry, but the best they can do is build these little, dopy apartment complexes that are maybe four stories tall, where you’d think they’d be building skyscrapers.

That’s something that I find very strange about a place like Los Angeles. I mean, Los Angeles is very beautiful and has a lot of character, but so much of the city is, you know, run down, neglected bungalows, or these strip malls that are half vacant. And you look at that, and you think, “There’s so much need for more housing, and there’s so much desire for walkable, mixed-use streets.” And you look at what we’re fighting tooth and nail to protect, and it’s hard to explain. 

Same as you said with Silicon Valley. So much of Silicon Valley just looks like, frankly, a Sun Belt suburb, where you get off a BART train, and you walk a block, and you’re surrounded by—exactly what you said—weird little garden apartments or little single-family homes. And that’s not to say that I’m judging anyone’s home or anyone’s community, but there are a lot of opportunities where I think everyone can agree: New development would be positive for some of these communities; it would satisfy the needs of people; and it would make cities more beautiful and accessible. 

I want to get your thoughts on climate change. How will climate change impact housing development in California? And how can urban planners help to minimize environmental impacts?

I think the arena for climate change is going to be international, and it’s going to be national. You have to have some kind of carbon pricing if we really want to get a handle on this. And we need coordination among developing and developed countries. That’s the unexciting answer. 

But I think you’re exactly right that there is a huge role to be played by local planners in being part of the solution. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of the housing growth in California is in the parts of the state that have pretty extreme climates or are at risk of wildfires. If you live here in Los Angeles, a lot of the housing growth is beyond the mountains in places like Palmdale, Hesperia, Victorville, and Lancaster. But if we really wanted to reduce individual household energy consumption, we would be building a ton of housing in a place like West Los Angeles or in San Francisco proper. 

Coastal California is kind of an environmental dream. The summers and the winters are very, very mild. Per-capita energy consumption on coastal California is extremely low. From a land use perspective, if California were interested in reducing individual emissions, the state would build a ton of housing in the most temperate areas along the coast and not just in in San Francisco and Los Angeles but in a town like San Luis Obispo, which builds basically nothing. Or in a town like Santa Barbara, which builds basically nothing. Instead, those areas are incredibly hard to build in, so Californians are moving to these places in the Central Valley, in the north of the state, or in the desert in Southern California, where they’re at risk of major climate events. And even if they’re not at risk, their energy consumption goes through the roof. Or, worse, they move to a place like Las Vegas or Phoenix, where they’re going to be blasting their air conditioner all the time, and they will never take a walk or ride a bus or ride their bicycles.

California talks a very big game about being concerned about climate change, and I don’t think they’re bluffing; I think a lot of people here really are concerned about climate change. But when the rubber hits the road, if we really want to reduce emissions, we have to build a lot of housing in temperate, coastal, generally very affluent areas of the state.

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