by Mark Hogan
Art by Casey Reas
In California, the code that governs how individual towns and cities develop sprawls across an entire shelf of thick three-ring binders in many planning offices, architectural firms, and building companies. These codes started out much smaller, of course, but over the past 125 years they have slowly grown longer and more complicated as regulators sought to address a seemingly endless number of questions and conditions pertaining to building California.
Sometimes new code is directly at odds with older code, but the older code stays on the books. We have regulations to encourage density and others favoring suburbanization. We have codes favoring public transit and other mandating acres of parking. These goals are contradictory and impossible to achieve at the same time in the same place; each bit of code can be used to stop another from doing its work. So nothing happens.
Computer code can have the same problem, too. New functionality requires new lines of code. And you can keep adding new code to the old until eventually you have what programmers artfully call a “hairball”—a tangle of code, full of bugs, kluges, and workarounds, so inefficient that it slows down the whole program or breaks it altogether. At that point, you face a choice: do you go in and try to kill the bugs and write more kluges and workarounds? Or do you start over and write new code?
We’re at that point with building and development codes in California. We need new code for the twenty-first century. Can we get it by tinkering with our existing code? Or should we rewrite our codes from the ground up?
The hairball of building and planning codes, at multiple levels of government, makes it difficult—and extremely expensive—to address two urgent and related crises facing California today: an urban housing shortage and climate change. The Bay Area and Southern California dominate lists of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the country. Greedy developers, young gentrifiers moving into low-income neighborhoods, and NIMBY groups are frequently blamed for skyrocketing housing costs; but in reality, each is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to recognize that the entire system of regulating housing development is broken. To create affordable cities, responsive to a changing climate and prudent with limited natural resources, we may need to rewrite the rules from scratch with a new set of goals in mind.
Most of the rules and regulations governing how and where and what housing gets built were first written in an era when land was cheap. California’s cities were expanding outward, and developers built detached homes while the state connected these new neighborhoods with new freeways. City planners began trying to rein in sprawl beginning in the 1970s, and an increased interest in urban living in recent years has changed what urban Californians look for in housing. California’s codes have not caught up with these larger changes.
Building and planning codes have their roots in the Progressive-era reform movement that sought to promote health and safety through higher-quality housing than the tenements that had been built in fast-growing industrial cities. Light and air were seen as cures to the ills that plagued dirty and heavily polluted late-nineteenth-century American cities, and many early reformers were legitimately concerned about the living conditions of lower income residents. But reformers’ intentions were not always benign. Nativist sentiment, racism, and classism also figured heavily in the reform movement, and upper-class reformers “saw new ethnic, religious, and political subcultures as threatening to hard-won changes in polite family life.”1
As the movement to regulate construction and land use coalesced, many of the well-intentioned early reformers who sought to improve the conditions of working people were pushed to the sidelines as the drive for zoning became more about excluding people, namely immigrants and African Americans.2 California cities had long used police powers to prevent Chinese laundries from setting up outside of Chinese neighborhoods, but Baltimore was the first city to write racial exclusion into a zoning ordinance when, in 1910, city leaders passed a law limiting where black residents could live to a list of specified neighborhoods.3 Racial zoning became common across much of the South. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that this interfered with property rights in Buchanan v. Warley, but municipalities continued to pass race-based zoning laws decades into the twentieth century. Even where racial exclusion was not codified by a city, deed restrictions in large subdivisions were commonly used to keep minorities out of certain areas. Reverberations from these baldly racist and segregationist practices are still felt today.
San Francisco began writing building codes as early as the late 1800s; but rather than legitimately regulating construction, these codes were often more concerned with collecting fees and harassing Chinese immigrants. The earthquake of 1906 and a backlash against what was seen as corruption during the rebuilding process prompted new, more stringent building codes between 1908 and 1909, however San Franciscans showed little interest in implementing zoning at this time.4 In 1908, Los Angeles was first to enact a citywide zoning ordinance that covered uses, principally protecting residential areas from industrial development. But implementation of zoning was focused on preserving high-value neighborhoods, promoting higher property values in middle-income areas, and promoting industrial uses in poor areas. In Berkeley, rather than protecting residents from pollution from nearby industrial activity, zoning codes were written to protect factory owners from lawsuits by low-income neighbors.5
When developers realized that property owners only had control over their own land, and developers could lobby the government to regulate land uses in the surrounding area, they became the biggest proponents of new codes. Broker-subdividers who were building large tracts of housing in the first decades of the twentieth century took the role of “community builders” by lobbying for land-use planning.6 In 1916, Berkeley became the first city in the country to zone specifically for single-family housing as one of only five different kinds of residential use districts, ranging from single-family to apartments. The earlier code in Los Angeles had simply zoned areas as residential or not.7
San Francisco came around to writing zoning codes—as opposed to building codes—after great urging by the Commonwealth Club. The club undertook surveys to document the need for zoning, lumping apartment houses in with lumber mills and stables on the list of undesirable intrusions in residential districts.8 Legislation enabling zoning was passed in 1917, but it took years of studies before the first zoning ordinance and maps were created in 1921. Because San Francisco was much more densely developed than Los Angeles or Berkeley, the implementation of zoning faced more resistance from the real estate industry than in other cities that had enacted zoning regulations. The eastern half of San Francisco was already built out, and there was fear amongst developers, business owners, and architects that a zoning code would stifle further development. The Real Estate Board won at least one battle, ensuring that the Zoning Code of 1921 didn’t include height limits, only restrictions on use.9 But portions of the western side of San Francisco that had not yet been developed got the city’s first detailed zoning restrictions. Areas were zoned into “first residential districts,” mandating single-family homes. Mixing commercial and industrial uses in residential districts was prohibited, with commercial businesses limited only to major thoroughfares where streetcars ran. Hotels and rooming houses were prohibited.
Zoning promoted neighborhood homogeneity that had not existed in cities prior to its creation. While people had legitimate concerns at the turn of the century about dangerous heavy industrial uses being built next to residences, the large tracts of single-family homes that were encouraged by the new code were designed to exclude large segments of the population. Zoning provided a government-backed mechanism to spatially segregate people by income and consequently by race.
In Lakewood, the quintessential postwar Southern California suburb depicted in D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, three Jewish developers purchased land that held the stipulation put in place by the previous development company that lots could not be sold to Jews, Mexicans, or black people. The Supreme Court didn’t ban racial restrictions in property ownership until 1948, and citizens could and did continue to sue to enforce racial covenants until the court banned that practice in 1953.10
Zoning also laid the groundwork for discrimination by other means. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated essay “The Case for Reparations” was based, in part, on the fact that banks replicated race-based zoning by drawing red lines around black neighborhoods on property maps and refused to lend to prospective homeowners there. This process, called redlining, prevented black Americans from buying homes during the postwar boom and locked them out of the legitimate credit market. While Coates’s essay uses Chicago as a case study, property maps were created of cities nationwide that forbade lending in black neighborhoods, putting residents at the mercy of an extortionist lending system with no regulations.11 In most cities, including San Francisco, the FHA maps showed “A” districts (meaning those areas most desirable for lending) aligned with the areas that had been recently zoned for single-family housing.
In addition to zoning codes that regulated how property could be used, planning codes also regulated the forms buildings can take through prescriptions on height, bulk, lot coverage, shadows, floor area ratio (the total square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot is on), and a wide variety of other measures implemented to achieve the planners’ desired effect. Over the course of the twentieth century, zoning and planning codes were used to control the setbacks on all sides of buildings, the amount of a lot that could be covered, parking minimums, and maximum floor area. Design guidelines were written in many places that dictate such details as building materials and design styles. Taken all together, these regulations have a profound effect on what gets built. The Empire State Building, for instance, was designed via an economic feasibility study for a speculative office building which took costs and potential rental income into consideration, in addition to how far from the street the building had to be set back from the street, as required by New York’s 1916 zoning code. Only then was the architect hired.12
Even across individual states, the regulatory environment differs between municipalities. Local building code amendments then overlay state building codes, meaning that every jurisdiction has a slightly different set of rules. The city of San Francisco’s zoning map shows sixty-five different use districts to regulate land use in a city of less than fifty square miles, and neighboring Oakland and Daly City each have their own separate lists of zoning designations.
Once federal regulations, design guidelines, building safety and energy efficiency requirements, historic preservation zones, and infrastructure considerations are brought into the mix, California’s city planners are left to navigate not only a Byzantine but an often contradictory set of rules. A city planning department may want buildings to have stoops and require them in design guidelines, but accessibility regulations in building codes require wheelchair accessibility. Fire departments advocate for wide streets in order to maneuver and park large vehicles during an emergency, but urban design guidelines often require narrower streets and curb bulb-outs to increase safety by lowering traffic speeds. Some of California’s own largest policy initiatives are at odds with each other. The state will require net-zero housing by 2020 and net-zero commercial buildings by 2030, meaning these buildings will use the same amount of energy as they generate. This is fairly easy to do in the suburbs, where more land is available for on-site energy generation. But it is nearly impossible to accomplish in cities at the scale required. At the same time, SB 375, the state’s Sustainable Communities Act, encourages better coordination between land use planning and transportation in order to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as part of the state’s initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is nearly impossible to do both of these things at the same time. Reducing VMT requires density, but density is nearly impossible to achieve while constructing net-zero buildings, unless transportation emissions for the site are taken into account when measuring the environmental impact of a new building.
Even where layers of code aren’t in conflict with one another, they can be in conflict with neighborhood groups. In California, which allows for a great deal of citizen participation in the planning process, it is not uncommon for neighbors to object to projects that will introduce rental apartments or taller buildings even where they are allowed in the existing code. For instance, the state enacted legislation decades ago to specifically allow for secondary units (also known as in-law units or granny flats) statewide, yet few local jurisdictions have followed through and allowed the new housing because of resistance from homeowners. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed local legislation in the 1980s explaining why the city’s single-family housing was a scarce resource that needed to be preserved, despite it making up the majority of the residentially zoned parcels in the city. To this day, San Francisco does not allow in-law units in single-family districts.
Early zoning codes locked many areas into much lower densities than would have developed if previous patterns of growth had taken their course. The densest, most urban parts of San Francisco (and those most frequented by tourists and film crews) are those that were rebuilt following the earthquake of 1906. Farther afield, the southern and western portions of the city built after the zoning code of 1921 are essentially suburban in density and character. This was not organic growth but development as prescribed by city planners and homebuilders. In Groth’s words, “Zoning thus made uniform land use and desired densities as enforceable as the requirements for interior plumbing.”13
If we switch from looking at planning regulations that govern where and what we build, and instead look at the building codes that were created to govern safety, we see a similar pattern of regulations that over time have come to strongly favor suburban development with little regard for their impact on the cost and feasibility of building higher density housing in cities. Architect Tom Steidl compared high-rise residential buildings in Los Angeles and Vancouver, specifically looking at factors that allowed buildings in Vancouver to be much more slender, even when they contained a similar number of units. Buildings in both cities have to comply with stringent earthquake design standards, but he shows that fire safety-related mandates in Los Angeles create a building core—where elevators, stairs and trash chutes are located—twice as large as what is required in Vancouver.14 A larger core means less useable space, making a building less efficient and more expensive to build.
The differences in approach to fire safety are not the result of Canadians’ higher tolerance for risk or greater faith in their fire departments. It is because the best way to prevent deaths from buildings fires is through the use of sprinkler systems, not stairwells. Research has shown an 82 percent decrease in the fire death rate in buildings with these systems, which is why they are installed in most new apartment buildings.15 Germany, a nation with half the fire death rate of the United States,16 allows a single stair in buildings up to 60 meters tall (about 200 feet), which allows for much more compact and efficient floorplans, and in turn means lower per square foot construction costs. But in the United States, multiple stair towers and the separation between them are still the foundation of the regulatory approach toward fire safety, despite the presence of sprinklers and other fire safety measures. Putting risk in perspective is important. There were over 32,000 motor vehicle related deaths and 12,000 gun deaths in the United States in 2013. That same year there were only 325 fire-related deaths in apartment buildings.17
The other largest regulatory factor influencing construction costs and feasibility, and the one communities have the greatest control over, concerns the mandatory parking requirements spelled out in local planning codes. Many of these codes still require two or more parking spaces for each residential unit. This both increases the cost of construction and reduces the number of units that can be built. On a typical site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of homes that can be built by 13 percent, and underground parking adds $35,000 in construction costs per parking space.18
Urban sprawl has been widely condemned for its environmental impact, and limits on the distance people are willing to commute mean that outer-ring suburbs are desirable only to the point where commuting distances become too great. But, low-density suburban development is still the dominant form of housing production. By the end of 2014, nationwide construction of single-family homes reached levels not seen since 2008 before the Great Recession.19 In California, there is a slightly different story, as new building permits were nearly balanced between single-family homes and units in apartment buildings between 2011 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this may be due to an excess inventory of single-family homes in the state, which needed be cleared in the wake of the downturn; so we will see only in the coming years whether or not this trend endures.
Sales prices for single-family homes can be as low as $60 to $70 per square foot in parts of the United States where labor is cheap and land costs are low—especially for high-volume builders who can rely on economies of scale. In California, national builder D.R. Horton is selling homes in Adelanto in San Bernardino County for under $100 per square foot. Roof trusses and preframed walls can be delivered and installed the same day. Designs are standardized and planning approval is typically efficient and predictable. Union labor is rarely used on single-family projects and construction staging (areas for storing materials and equipment) is not an issue. In the case of large developments, the same plans are used again and again, with minor modifications here and there for variety. An architect or engineer is not required to get a permit for a single-family home, and at the smaller scale, many building departments provide typical construction details for homebuilders to include in their drawing sets to speed the process along.
It is a different story when looking at dense urban housing. Building codes for any residential building larger than a duplex have been written in a way that penalizes this type of construction. In cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the permitting process for a large apartment or condominium project can take years. Even adding a single additional apartment unit to an existing building can easily take eight months or more in city review time. The end result of our acres of code is a process that exacerbates our housing shortage, drives up the cost of housing, and stymies our own plans for building more sustainable cities. Each cycle of building codes generally brings more stringent sets of guidelines, the value of which is often debatable.
We could continue to tweak and tinker our way to building and zoning codes better fit for today’s purposes—but that is essentially what we have been doing for the past century. Or, we can acknowledge that addressing the twenty-first century challenges before us will not be possible with tools that are a century or more old. While California does have its own state building code, it is based on the International Building Code, which is followed by most jurisdictions in the United States. The national preference for suburban-style development means that there is little pressure for reform. If things are going to change, it will only happen at the state level.
In Los Angeles, the tension between snarled code, angry neighborhood groups, and a city patching a badly broken process has come to a head. In 2014, the city launched Recode: LA, the first comprehensive reform of the 1946 zoning code, which was written for a city with abundant cheap land but still governs development in Los Angeles today. The original sixty-seven-page zoning code is now a jumble ten times the size, inconsistent not only with itself but with the city of nearly four million people grappling with insufficient housing, frustrating traffic, and local, state, and federal regulations, standards, and goals on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage. Almost every major development requires permission from the city to deviate from some aspect of the planning code, a process that adds time and expense for the developer, and frustration for residents who never know what someone might try to build in their neighborhood.
In frustration, some activists are proposing a ballot measure that would forbid any development requiring a variance for two years. This would exacerbate an already extreme housing shortage and do nothing to move Los Angeles closer to sustainability. At the same time, some San Franciscans have been fighting a proposed program that would provide a modest amount of additional density to developers in return for building more units of affordable housing. Flyers have circulated in city neighborhoods claiming that San Francisco’s sleepy, fog-draped Outer Sunset district would turn into Miami Beach if the plan were to pass. The housing shortage that plagues all of its large cities is a huge drag on California’s economy, and it is vital that all levels of government begin to address it as a priority on par with fire safety and protecting existing property owners’ home values. Urban areas can no longer rely on sprawling single-family car-oriented neighborhoods to address the pressing need for new housing, and our regulations need to allow for alternatives.
Adding more housing to existing communities doesn’t have to mean “Manhattanization,” as is often claimed. People who grew up watching Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) or Melrose Place (set in West Hollywood) are familiar with the type of middle-density apartment living that is not being built in most of urban California today, where the majority of the residential land in our largest cities is still zoned for single-family homes or saddled with parking requirements that make increased density unfeasible. Even the popular family-oriented 1990s sitcom Full House, a show about an extended family living together in the heart of San Francisco, features Uncle Jesse and his wife Becky living in what would, in reality, be an illegal in-law apartment upstairs.
If only life could imitate art—or popular culture anyway! New housing in California has come to mean either auto-dependent sprawl or expensive high-density apartments and condos in the urban core, but to really make a difference we have to allow the kinds of middle-density development like the low-rise Melrose Place apartments or the Full House in-law unit in all of our communities. Disallowing this kind of gentle medium density in the name of preserving neighborhood character does a disservice to those who arrived here or were born too late to afford a single-family home within commuting distance of their jobs. It also fails to recognize that making communities more walkable and sustainable will improve neighborhood character over time, not diminish it.
We cannot give up and decide our communities are full, or simply rely on the thinking of the past century to guide our regulations. It’s time to stop tinkering. At the state and local level, we must recode California.
The art accompanying this article comes from Casey Reas‘s Process series. As Reas explains, “each Process is a short text that defines a space to explore through multiple interpretations. A Process interpretation in software is a kinetic drawing machine with a beginning but no defined end. It proceeds one step at a time, and at each discrete step, every Element modifies itself according to its behaviors. The corresponding visual forms emerge as the Elements change; each adjustment adds to the previously drawn shapes.”
12. See the chapter “Form Follows Finance” by Carol Willis in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City 1900–1940, David Ward and Oliver Zunz, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) for a complete account.
14. Tom Steidl, “High-Rise Codes & Housing Affordability in Los Angeles.” Let’s Go LA. https://letsgola.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/high-rise-codes-housing-affordability-in-los-angeles/. [Accessed: 23-Nov-2015].
15. John R. Hall, Jr., “US Experience with Sprinklers.” National Fire Protection Association, 2013. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-safety-equipment/us-experience-with-sprinklers. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].
19. Erin Carlyle, “2014 Housing Starts Hit Highest Level Since 2007.” Forbes (2015). http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2015/01/21/2014-housing-starts-hit-strongest-finish-since-2007-as-single-family-construction-rises/. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].