Los Angeles Needs More Housing Units, Not Cars on the Road

Last week California Governor Gavin Newsom doubled down on his $1.75 billion state budget (2019-2020) investment in new housing by signing 18 bills to accelerate housing development throughout the state.

The most significant bill, Senate Bill 330 (“Housing Crisis Act of 2019”), will accelerate housing production in CA’s “urbanized” areas by streamlining permitting and approval processes, ensuring no net loss in zoning capacity and limiting fees after projects are approved.

The Governor also signed five bills (AB 68, AB 881, AB 587, SB 13, AB 671) to spur the building of Accessory Dwelling Units, which is now defined as a backyard home of at least 800-square-feet, or a converted garage, office or spare room.  This creates an opportunity for up to three new living spaces on a lot.  Since 2016 L.A. has received 13,000 ADU requests, but the development of these units has been very slow for a number of reasons, which are addressed in these bills.

Another significant bill for L.A. is Assembly Bill 1560, which expands the definition of “major transit stop” to include bus rapid transit station.  That now means that housing developments within a half mile of L.A. Metro’s Orange Line stops, which operates between Chatsworth and the North Hollywood Metro Station will be exempt from CEQA.  L.A. Metro is also moving forward with a $180 million east-west San Fernando Valley Bus Rapid Transit Line to meet the growing demand for transit, and more affordable and workforce housing units, in the northern portion of the San Fernando Valley, which includes the communities surrounding the CSUN campus, which has a daily population of 50,000 plus people during the academic year.

L.A. has too many cars, driving too many miles, polluting too many neighborhoods. 

Supporters behind the push for more ADUs and housing units around transit corridors believe that these changes will provide more affordable and workforce housing opportunities closer to job centers, thereby decreasing the amount of miles driven by commuters.

The fact is there are too many cars on the road everyday in L.A. and they are literally detrimental to our mental and physical health.

This week two New York Times’ writers, Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu, authored an article entitled The Most Detailed Map of Auto Emissions in America, that shows that transportation was the top source of greenhouse gases in the United States in 2018 and the vast majority of the emissions, nearly 60 percent, came from the driving of passenger vehicles and trucks in our cities and suburbs.  Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent.

L.A. has had some success in improving its air quality.  Between 1993 and 2006 L.A. has cut nitrogen dioxide pollution by 22 percent and fine particulate matter by 36 percent.

Yet, from 1990 to 2017 emissions in the L.A. Metro area increased by 16 percent, though there was a 2 percent decrease in emission per person.  The Riverside-San Bernadino region had a 78 percent increase (2 percent increase per person), Oxnard-Thousand Oaks region had a 45 percent increase (13 percent increase per person) and San Diego had a 39 percent increase (5 percent per person).

This summer L.A. experienced 57 straight days of unhealthy air quality due to hot temperatures, slack winds and high emissions.   Also, since 2012 the rate of vehicle growth has substantially exceeded population growth in L.A. due to low interest rates and Uber and Lyft and other gig delivery services.  Also, decade long economy is bringing more people into the workforce and putting more trucks on the road delivering goods to the market.

The Impact of Bad Air of Angelenos

L.A.’s youth and aging population are the most vulnerable to poor air quality and health problems associated with air pollution can take years to manifest themselves.  Research shows that around a third of all deaths from strokes, lung cancer and respiratory diseases can be linked to toxic air.

A new USC study suggests that exposure to traffic pollution during childhood makes adolescents 34 percent more likely to eat foods high in unhealthy trans fats — regardless of household income, parent education level or proximity to fast-food restaurants.  The exact mechanisms linking air pollution and obesity aren’t known, but researchers hypothesize that oxidative stress and inflammation may be to blame.

Breathing dirty air is also linked to aggressive behavior, according to a new paper by Jesse Burkhardt and his colleagues at Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota.  The findings of Mr Burkhardt and his co-authors suggest that cleaner air could reduce violent crime still further. The benefits would be substantial. The authors estimate that a 10 percent reduction in daily PM2.5 and ozone exposure could save America $1.4 billion a year through reduced assaults (the savings range from the cost of the immediate police response to lost productivity due to injuries).

What Next?

Meaningfully lowering emissions from driving requires both technological and behavioral change and we need to continue to make vehicles pollute less, make people drive less, or both.  The good news is that L.A. is on the way to investing $120 billion in expanding its transit options, including subways, light rail and rapid bus services, and planning denser, more accessible neighborhoods, but things take time and legislating and planning for new construction does not always translate into the development of new housing units.

According to the UCLA Center for Regional Policy Studies, historically, only a fraction of planned units are actually built and the bulk of building permits from 2003-2014 were for single-family housing units.  As for the development of multi-family construction, a recent UC Berkeley study showed that in the L.A. region, the majority of developments that met zoning requirements were subject to so much local oversight (community opposition, parking requirements, other features of the zoning code) that delayed or derailed projects at the permitting stage, leading to a smaller number of units than legally allowed.

This underutilized space is part of the missing housing puzzle, but the question is not only how do we build more affordable and workforce units, it also is, how do we accommodate growth while decreasing the impact we have on our environment and the region’s quality of life.

We look forward to sharing some solutions soon!