In summary

Legalizing duplexes, triplexes and quads in single-family neighborhoods seemed revolutionary a few years ago, but the political landscape has shifted.

By Chris Blakney

Chris Blakney is head of the Los Angeles office of ECONorthwest, a West Coast economic and housing policy consultancy, blakney@econw.com.

Monique King-Viehland

Monique King-Viehland is the director of State and Local Housing Policy for the Urban Institute, MKviehland@urban.org.

Alan Greenlee, Special to CalMatters

Alan Greenlee is the executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing. agreenlee@scanph.org.

George Floyd’s murder in May expanded this nation’s racial justice movement. A recent poll reported that 85% of Los Angeles County voters were concerned about race relations, and two-thirds had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matters movement.

Policy change happens fast with those kinds of numbers. In June, the Los Angeles City Council approved a model that would replace police officers with unarmed, community responders for non-violent 911 calls. In July, Mayor Eric Garcetti created the Community Safety Partnership bureau to foster relationships between neighborhoods and police officers. And Los Angeles County voters approved Measure J, which dedicates 10% of local tax revenues to investments in community counseling, youth development programs, small businesses and job creation.

History tells us these catalytic moments don’t last forever. What will be the scope of this one? And will Los Angeles make progress on one of the most pernicious forms of systemic racism: neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes? 

Devised in the 1920s, single-family zoning still shapes Angelinos’ lives. It facilitated neighborhood segregation by race and income – houses were larger, land costs were higher, and many homes came with enforceable racial convents that prohibited the owner from selling or renting the property to nonwhite residents. Today, three-quarters of residential land is zoned single-family. 

Recent, landmark studies of intergenerational economic mobility – the ability of children to earn more than their parents – show a relationship between zoning policies and opportunity. Economist Raj Chetty, who led the mobility studies, found that low-income kids growing up in Encino, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks – all zoned primarily for single-family homes – have good chances of earning more than their parents.

But for decades, property covenants and high home prices prevented most Black families from settling in the Northwest and Hollywood neighborhoods. Instead, many located in South Los Angeles. There, the research shows, most youth earn the same, and sometimes less, than their parents. Experts from the Urban Institute have long said that segregated neighborhoods may be compounding disadvantages, and Chetty’s research demonstrates that the American Dream is elusive in South Los Angeles.

Chetty has a two-part prescription to restore the American Dream. 

First, make deep, sustained community investments similar to those envisioned in Measure J. Second, provide families better access to existing, opportunity-rich neighborhoods. Making meaningful progress on this second front would require adding more housing options in high-opportunity neighborhoods, which is prohibited by today’s exclusive single-family zoning.

Legalizing duplexes, triplexes and quads in single-family neighborhoods seemed revolutionary only a few years ago, but the political landscape has shifted. Minneapolis was the first to go in December 2018 by allowing duplexes and triplexes in every neighborhood. Seizing on the Minneapolis example, the Oregon Legislature in 2019 went big and legalized these so-called “missing middle” housing options in every city with a population above 10,000. 

David Ambrose, past president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, has asked to study how the city could allow duplexes in single-family zones, following the Minneapolis and Portland models. It’s a bold request. Similar state-level efforts at zoning reforms have either died in committee or just ran out of time. Many single-family homeowners will fight new housing options in their neighborhoods. They’ll claim losses in property value and neighborhood character. Up to this point, in Los Angeles and California, they’ve won.

But this time might be different. Awareness of, and concern about, the long history of policies and practices that have driven Black-white disparities is at an all-time high. Black Lives Matter signs have appeared in front yards across the city. Now’s the time to test the depth of the conviction.

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The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

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