When I was 14, my parents picked up our lives in the Bay Area and re-located to a mostly white suburb outside of Sacramento. I immediately felt like an alien landing on a different planet for the first time. Everything was bigger — the roads, the cars, the homes, the parking lots. The houses had manicured lawns and were painted in a similar muted color palate. But for all that extra space, the people were hidden. No busy crosswalks, no large freeway overpasses, no parks packed with children and families.
When searching for furniture to furnish our new two story home (a complete and utter dream of mine) we found ourselves in a crowded RC Willey. “Mom, I think we’re the only brown people in here,” I said to her under my breath.
The awareness of being outnumbered had never struck me before, yet suddenly I was cognizant that this place was very different than the places I lived before. When we returned to visit my grandmother in Richmond on the weekends, I noted the apartment complex among apartment complexes. The liquor store on the corner (we didn’t have those in walking distance in my suburb), and the close proximity to the freeway. I’ve recently realized that this was not by accident, but by purposeful decisions made federally, statewide, and locally. As it turns out, the invisible force behind the makings of our surroundings and communities is land use policy.
When I joined Western Center in January of this year as a housing advocate, I thought a lot about my own experiences and recollection of community against the backdrop of our current housing and affordability crisis. The state of California has an astronomical lack of affordable homes, with a recent study showing that we’ll need “1.2 million more affordable homes by 2030 – approximately 120,000 per year – to keep pace with demand.” According to the Department of Housing and Community Development, California is producing only 80,000 units on average each year – and only a tiny fraction of those affordable to renters with extremely low-incomes. That gap is alarming when you consider how dire the consequences are for priced out Californians.
On any given night, there are upwards of 150,000 unhoused Californians sleeping on the street or in their cars. We’re falling behind in building the affordable units needed to house them, and decades of land-use and related policies have incentivized the production of market rate development over affordable, subsidized housing.
Widely seen as a “statewide” crisis affecting all Californians, the housing crisis acutely impacts Black and indigenous communities, as well as people of color generally (BIPOC). California has seen a maddening increase in levels of homelessness among communities of color; notably, Black people represent only 6.5% of the state’s population, but account for nearly 40% of California’s unhoused.
Black people, Native Americans, and Latinos are more likely to experience homelessness and overcrowded housing than white people. They are more likely to be low-wage workers, more likely to be rent-burdened, and more likely to contract and die from Coronavirus. Clearly, the housing crisis is also a race and equity crisis.
The data is overwhelming, and California has taken strides to confront the problem by reexamining its approach to housing and development. In response to the clear lack of affordable housing units available and a growing narrative that the source of the crises is a lack of housing supply, legislators have introduced a large slew of bills related to housing production and land use.
But what is land use policy? As I continue to learn in this policy arena, the more I realize it’s been a tool used to advance racist and exclusionary policy, which has led to a segregated California. But I’ve also learned that land use policy can be a tool to address the problems its created.
At its most basic level, land use policy is the control, rights of property, and act of mapping and planning land by its ideal use. One can imagine how a small city would choose to build a water tower near a river, for example, or choose to build homes and parks far from an industrial waste site. An umbrella term, land use encapsulates a set of tools and laws that dictate where we build, how we build, and for whom.
Those decisions not only create the physical makeup of cities and towns, but also have implications for our wellbeing and overall health. For example, living near a freeway and other pollution sources are shown to reduce a person’s life expectancy, and lead to a multitude of health problems and birth defects. Where we live is just as important as how.
Land Use: A Racist Beginning
In many ways California represents the epicenter of housing policy in the United States. In 1904, Los Angeles was the first city in the nation to implement land use restrictions. Initially prohibiting industrial uses in residential districts, Los Angeles soon divided itself into areas designated for certain uses, also known as zoning. Cities across the country began to zone their land for different sets of uses: single-family homes, multi-family homes, industrial plants, multi-purpose areas. In addition to designating uses, cities created requirements related to the size, height, and appearance of buildings.
1904 represents the beginning of zoning ordinances on paper, but the act of designating space for specific uses or people was in place for much longer and has a racist and exclusionary history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities across the United States implemented policies to control where Black people and immigrants lived. Single family housing, houses that could be sold for much higher prices, were favored over multi-family homes. Early on, single family homes became a commodity designated for white people, while people of color were pushed into denser, less desirable areas. Racially exclusionary zoning policies are the foundation for the racial and economic segregation that we see in our communities today.
The Supreme Court issued a landmark decision finding overt racialized zoning to be unconstitutional challenged in 1917. Louisville, Kentucky had a city ordinance prohibiting Black people from buying a home or occupying any location in majority white neighborhoods. When William Warley, a Black man, attempted to purchase a home in a majority white neighborhood, the local ordinance was used to prevent him from completing the purchase. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices voted unanimously to strike down explicitly racist zoning requirements across the U.S.
Despite that win, the same practices were perpetuated through other means and proxies. Emerging from the Buchanan decision was an acceleration of the practice of racially restrictive covenants. Rampant until 1948 when the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional, racial covenants were private agreements that put limits on who could purchase a property based on their race or religion. Almost all racial covenants prohibited the selling of homes to anyone other than a white non-Jewish person. The stipulations on the contracts were so severe that if the contract was violated and the home was sold to a person of color, the property would return to the original homeowner.
In addition to exclusionary zoning and racial covenants, perhaps the most damaging policy is one known as redlining. After suffering a financial collapse in 1929, the United States was thrown into the grips of the Great Depression, subsequently spurring action on a variety of policies in an attempt to reform the economy. The federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in response to an onslaught of home foreclosures, which overhauled mortgage and lending practices to spur home buying.
HOLC deliberately assessed neighborhoods and adjusted their lending practices using a race-based risk model. Maps of neighborhoods, divided by color-coding, marked whether a neighborhood was desirable (green=all white neighborhood) or (red=’high risk’ and containing people of color). Black people were denied loans and housing opportunities en masse. The policy proved to be one of the largest state-sanctioned discrimination plans in history. “Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government issued $120 billion in home loans, 98% of which went to whites.”
For better or worse, the American Dream was idealized as a house with a large yard, and that dream was purposely denied to Black people, people of color, immigrants, Jewish people, people who were disabled, and many more. The dark history of redlining is directly connected to negative environmental impacts, and wealth gaps affecting people of color that still reverberate today and lead to severe COVID-19 impacts in Black communities.
Despite identifying the wrongs of the past, our institutions are only recently coming to terms with their role in continuing segregation trends, and directly atoning for them. In March of 2021, Evanston, a small town in Illinois, agreed to provide Black residents with reparations to be used towards housing. A first in the nation policy, Evanston recognized the damage their housing policies have had on their Black residents, proclaiming, “The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program (“The Program”) acknowledges the harm caused to Black/African-American Evanston residents due to discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the part of the City.”
The U.S.’s history of racial segregation, whether enshrined in law or not, permeates all housing policies and our lives today. Reparations are one way to directly correct past failures of government, but there is still not a clear understanding of all the ways governments have or can deal with those harms, or how land-use policy might now be used to build a better future.
Turning the Tide – The Building Blocks of Affordable Housing Development
In the middle to late 1960’s, the confluence of political and civil rights movement and the Vietnam War culminated in powerful anti-discrimination legislation. Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Assassination in 1968, then President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited the use of race, religion, national origin, sex, handicap and family status as a means to deny a person rental housing or financing. A year after that, California passed The Housing Element Law which required local and state governments to adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community for the first time.
Breaking that down: Each municipality in California must have a roadmap for growth in their community called a General Plan. The General Plan is comprised of seven elements: housing, land use, circulation, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. When the Housing Element was added in 1969, it signaled a commitment to build appropriately for the future. The Housing Element Law began the trend of “inclusionary zoning” – zoning that accounts for the needs of people with low incomes, as opposed to “exclusionary zoning,” which is used to describe policies that effectively make it impossible for people with low incomes to live in a place.
The Housing Element law was further refined and strengthened in 1980, and ensures that local planning consider the amount of housing stock available to all income levels, and plans on ways it can lower regulatory barriers to meet housing production goals for each income level. The amount of units needed per income level is described as the cities’ Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).
Housing Element law is the main vehicle through which the state affects local housing and land use policies, and includes considerations for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing.  It’s important to note that despite Housing Element law requiring planning, it does not require that the actual housing be built. That distinction is important and partly explains why California has historically lagged behind in meeting its affordable housing goals. Despite the state’s best efforts to compel local jurisdictions to plan for low-income multi-family housing or public housing, in practice, affordable housing developments are vehemently opposed and face a myriad of challenges in order to gain approval.
Incentivizing the Right Kind of Development
In addition to Housing Element Law, there needed to be an incentive to build low-income housing. The answer came in 1976, when California policymakers passed the most sweeping affordable housing incentive bill, known as the Density Bonus Law (DBL). DBL is currently California’s best tool to leverage and expand affordability, yet it remains unknown to most Californians and is severely underutilized.
The law is famously complicated, but exists to motivate developers to build affordable units by offering them concessions and bonuses in exchange. The concept behind DBL is simple – it’s a give and take model that allows developers to increase the density of their project (adding more units), if they include housing dedicated to low-income and sensitive groups. It’s a win for the developer because “denser” buildings contain more units that the developer can make money on, and it’s a win for cities because desperately needed low-income housing gets built. Additional sweeteners are included, like lowering minimum parking requirements, reduced fees, expedited permitting, and eased height, transportation, and parking requirements.
DBL and other laws that focus on public actions creating public benefit are examples of land value capture policies. Simply put, land value capture ensures that a community can reap the benefits of a private, public, or government investment. When you remove constraints that allow a larger project to be built on a site than would otherwise be allowed under local zoning or you remove parking requirements or other things that save money, you create additional value. That value is then used to subsidize the affordable units. If a developer wants to take advantage of low prices in a low-income neighborhood to build housing, that developer should have to provide the surrounding neighborhood with the value of more affordable units.
Gentrification and Displacement
Fairly often, the response to the affordable housing crisis is build, build, build. Many believe that by adding more housing stock to the market, the housing demand will lower and so will housing costs. Unfortunately, the price of rental housing isn’t entirely driven by demand, it’s driven by profit.
Envision a plot of land zoned for a single family home — a developer could sell that home for $100,000. But if the developer can create a 10-unit high rise on the same plot of land (known as up-zoning), they can multiply profits by 10. However, up-zoning does very little to support affordability, and in turn can exacerbate gentrification in low-income communities.
Take for example, cost pressures in the Bay Area. When certain industries moved close by, housing production increased, but the majority of homes were financially out of reach for longstanding communities. Building without the promise of affordability will always lead to higher rental prices. High rises and homes that are only inhabitable for people with moderate to high incomes do nothing to support people with low incomes, and those close to homelessness. Instead, it displaces community members and fuels gentrification.
Land Use Going Forward
I’ve named only a few historical anecdotes, concepts, and factors at play in California. Land-use policy as a whole is rarely mentioned in political speeches or the evening news, but the implications are far-reaching. Not one state in the U.S. has a large enough supply of affordable housing for people with the lowest incomes. That devastating statistic has been true for too long.
Housing advocates across the nation are doubling down on efforts to expand equitable development and land use incentives to address the crisis at hand. To dismantle racist structures that minimize opportunities for BIPOC, we must re-commit to building equitably, which means using incentives and backstops like the Density Bonus Law and No Net Loss statute. Land value capture schemes should be employed in local land use policies as a tool to force the market to account for the most vulnerable.
Equity takes work. History shows that it’s not enough to simply end the practice of segregation or redlining; it takes effort and diligence to dismantle structures that continue to perpetuate racist and inequitable trends. An equity-centered approach to housing development and land-use policy requires local community input, a focus on affordable housing preservation, land value capture, and anti-gentrification measures. When someone says the answer is to build, you must ask: how? And for whom? A well thought out and nuanced vision for our housing stock is needed now.
I have the great fortune of having a roof over my head, in a community that I truly enjoy. I fundamentally believe that all people deserve that same benefit. As I continue my role here at Western Center, I hope to learn more and bring others along with me as I de-mystify land-use policies so we can fight back against longstanding injustices and build a healthier, stronger future.
Land Use Terminology:
- Land Use — The planning, control, and rights of property.
- Zoning — Tool used to govern “uses” (e.g. residential, commercial, or industrial), the size of buildings, and how buildings relate to their surroundings, including other buildings, open spaces, and the street.
- By Right — “By right” development refers to a project that is permitted under zoning rules and is approved administratively without discretionary local government review. Because it relaxes the review process, it’s often seen as a positive tool to ensure that affordable units get built.
- Infill Development — Building within unused and underutilized lands within a community, typically but not exclusively in urban areas. “Urban infill” implies that existing land is mostly built-out and what is being built is in effect filling in the gaps. Example: Re-purposing an empty parking lot
- Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) — Pronounced “reena.” Regional number of housing units needed to meet the housing needs of people in four income categories: very low, low, moderate, and above moderate. This number is critically important in completing a jurisdiction’s Housing Element.
- Land Speculation — Purchasing undeveloped or affordable land and holding it for an indefinite amount of time in order to sell it when the value of the property significantly increases. Example: A developer purchasing an empty lot in a downtown city core and selling it for significantly higher once the surrounding community becomes gentrified.
- Inclusionary Zoning — Municipal and county planning ordinances that require a given share of new construction to be affordable for people with low to moderate incomes.
- Exclusionary Zoning — Local land use zoning practices that effectively bar low- and moderate-income households from finding adequate housing in a given jurisdiction.
- Land Value Capture — Policy approach that allows communities to recover land value from development projects.