For the last several years, Los Angeles' game plan for alleviating the housing crisis has been to encourage housing construction — lots of it — near transit stops.
L.A., like many cities in California, hasn't built enough homes to keep up with population growth. The result is a housing shortage that has driven rents to record highs, fueling the growth in homelessness and forcing many workers to pay more than they can afford — or pushing them out of the area and into long commutes.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has set a goal of 275,000 new housing units being built by 2035. In Garcetti's vision, two-thirds of the homes should be within a quarter-mile of a transit stop.
Linking housing construction to transit makes a lot of sense. Los Angeles County taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to construct new light rail, subway and dedicated bus lines. These projects can be the catalyst for a new urban landscape that is more densely developed to accommodate more housing, and more walkable and transit friendly to reduce Angelenos' reliance on their cars, easing traffic congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that Los Angeles officials have been working on new Transit Neighborhood Plans that aim to allow more homes, jobs and shops within a 15-minute walk of rail and busway stations. The plans also include design standards, sidewalk improvements and landscaping enhancements to create attractive neighborhoods around the stations.
The bad news? The city's first effort, the Expo Line Transit Neighborhood Plan, falls short of the ambitious urban planning needed if Los Angeles is ever going to make a dent in the housing crisis.
The plan would regulate future development within half a mile of five stops from the Culver City station to the Bundy station. Although it would allow more housing to be located around those stops — 4,200 to 6,000 new units by 2035 — that's a drop in the bucket compared with Garcetti's goal. The plan would let developers build denser, taller projects in exchange for including affordable units, but it requires fewer units for low-income residents than the city's other incentive programs do.
Research has shown that the arrival of a new public transit station in a community increases the likelihood of gentrification and the displacement of longtime, low-income residents. That's why Los Angeles should be building more housing, especially affordable housing, in just these sorts of places: right next to transit stops in desirable communities close to jobs.
There are two reasons for the paltry number of new homes allowed by the plan. One is that large swaths of land around the Expo Line stations are single-family neighborhoods that have been deemed off-limits for rezoning and increased density. Yes, single-family neighborhoods are part of the character and fabric of L.A., but it's hard to see how the city can house its current occupants, let alone the growing population to come, without at least pondering looser restrictions that allow more triplexes, fourplexes and townhomes.
The other reason is that the plan aims to preserve industrial land for new and expanding employers. That makes it easier for companies to locate in L.A. and create good-paying technology, research or manufacturing jobs that grow the local economy, raise incomes and boost the city's tax base.
But the Expo Line plan anticipates the creation of twice as many jobs as homes. There is already a tremendous jobs-housing imbalance on the Westside. Just look at commuting patterns on the Expo Line and the 10 Freeway — lots of people head west in the morning for work and the opposite direction in the evening. So, yes, provide the space for more jobs near transit stops. But also build more homes.
The Expo Line Transit Neighborhood Plan is the city's first attempt at redesigning communities around transit stations. It should be a model for building denser, more affordable, more walkable, more environmentally minded neighborhoods. Los Angeles leaders should not settle for slight improvements over the status quo. The housing crisis, global warming and the future of the city demand more.