Apparently human beings are forced to live on the streets of Los Angeles because it’s “illegal to build housing” here. I guess there are even people who think we can “solve homelessness” in this City by changing or eliminating zoning codes to allow developers to build whatever they want wherever they want?1 These folks self-present as the smartest guys in the room but nevertheless have some pretty kooky ideas about how things work in this City. Just for instance, they seem to think that Los Angeles developers and politicians desperately want to house the homeless but somehow always end up thwarted by the complexity of the problem and a bunch of putatively bad laws that no one likes but somehow got written and enforced anyway.
Neither politicians nor developers can do anything about homelessness despite the fact that they’re in charge of the whole damn City because, the story goes, a bunch of single family homeowners hate apartments and use their vast political power to retain racist zoning laws in order to increase property values. These genius urban theorists, who apparently think it would be easier to get Los Angeles2 to eliminate zoning codes than to build a bunch of public housing, characterize every possible non-market solution to homelessness as leftist naivete. They tout their desired policies as political realism even as they denigrate progressive ideas as impossible and revolutionary.
Well, fine. It took me decades to get over LAUSD’s lies about how the City of Los Angeles functions, so I’m not surprised that a bunch of superficial YIMBYs don’t understand it either. It took me longer than that to comprehend even partly how some aspects of the City actually do work. While on that journey I also came to see that the City is too complex for any one person to comprehend, too complex for any one theory to explain. Coming to understand the difficulty of understanding gave me a great deal of humility when theorizing about this City and has pretty much put an end to my having opinions on other cities. It also destroyed any patience I had left, which was already not that much, for theories regarding municipal operations propounded by people who don’t have the first idea of how things get done here.3
So back to the theory that homelessness in Los Angeles is caused by the difficulty and expense of building residential units here. All we have to do, this argument goes, is loosen up the permitting requirements and very soon no one will have to live on the streets. And maybe this would work in some other cities but it won’t work here even if the theory behind it is completely sound.4 People that propose this plan for Los Angeles either don’t understand how the City works or else they don’t care that their proposal is politically unworkable whether or not it would house every single homeless person.5
American municipal zoning laws were invented in Los Angeles in 1904. They were immediately recognized as a major advance in government technology and consequently spread rapidly across the country.6 Regardless of the problems the originators of zoning laws thought they were solving, these days zoning, like every other social system that materially affects the activities of zillionaires,7 is used by them to skim their share8 from the municipal money firehose. A complex system, expensive in both money and resources to operate and keep operational, doesn’t spontaneously maintain itself. Without people intentionally keeping the zoning system running it’d stop quickly.
Even if the laws weren’t repealed they wouldn’t be enforced if someone in power didn’t gain an advantage from enforcing them. This isn’t just a theoretical position, by the way. The LA Municipal Code is filled with unenforced laws, passed from time to time for various often-irrecoverable reasons. No one now can make money or consolidate power by enforcing them, so no one enforces them. Just for one instance see the anti-AirBnB laws, passed with a great deal of publicity to gain some ephemeral political advantage, no one now can make a buck by enforcing these laws so they’re not enforced. When someone figures out a way to monetize their enforcement they will be enforced.
That people in power are making money from zoning is shown by the fact that zoning exists here, but this doesn’t tell us how they do it. I’m sure I don’t know all the ways in which zoning facilitates money-harvesting, but I can tell you one of them. In Los Angeles if a building requires variances it requires at least one ordinance to be passed by City Council, probably more than one. This requires the salient Councilmember to cooperate, and this requires money. Not so much campaign donations, which are limited to $800 per person, not so much “officeholder account” money, which is also limited to $800 per person. This $1,600 payoff is necessary to get the building approved but is in no way sufficient. Campaign contributions aren’t where the real money is.
An accepted and normal part of the building approval process are something called community benefit payments. This is significant money, often in seven figures, that developers agree to give to CMs to fund projects that ostensibly benefit the community to make up for the putative damage caused by approving out-of-code structures. The CMs then use that money to fund things requested by supporters that can bundle community support, like crosswalks, park stuff, and so on. They also use it to fund LAPD overtime, which makes the LAPPL happy. The good will created among constituents and the police union gets the CM re-elected and the cycle repeats.
Government officials, who are the ones who have the power to repeal or not repeal laws, don’t use zoning codes to prevent housing being built, they use them to get their cut of the take.9 If the LA City Council repealed zoning codes they’d have to invent new ways for zillionaires to pay off politicians, and why would they voluntarily do that?10 NIMBYs are political cover rather than political power. If there’s money in upzoning rich neighborhoods it will happen. If there’s not upzoning in rich neighborhoods it’s because it’s not a net gain for zillionaires rather than because NIMBYs oppose it.
Regardless of why zoning was invented, the fact that it has by now withstood all serious court challenges and is an essential tool in the LA City government toolbox has made it available it to our current zillionaires, who use it in all the ways they use it without worrying about its history. Neither they nor their pet CMs are going to get rid of it or even weaken it just because some sophomoric density bro caught a light bulb in his thought balloon. Anyone who thinks they will, or even thinks they’re actually interested in housing the unhoused, is too naive to be worth the time it would take to explain anything true to them. They’re not listening anyway.
Speaking of sophomoric density bros, you may have spotted one of their recent talking points, which is the claim that the housing policies their opponents support would require a revolution to implement. The implication is that their policies are realistic, pragmatic, actually feasible, just involve changing a few laws and a few attitudes. This is another instance of their lack of local knowledge. Take public housing, for instance. Here in Los Angeles it will almost certainly be easier to implement a large-scale City-run public housing program than it would be to change zoning codes materially in any direction at all.
The City already operates some public housing and has voter approval for a bunch more. Progressives already have a shaky seven member coalition on the City Council with some slightly left centrists and this may become a majority in mere months after the upcoming CD6 special election and whatever happens in CD10. In 2024 CD2, CD6, CD10, CD12, and CD14 are definitely contestable in this city which dumped multiple incumbents over the last two elections. Even without a progressive majority the decades-long tradition of CMs “deferring” to their colleagues over intra-district matters is crumbling, which only gives the left more leverage when making deals. And labor, including the building trades, is immensely influential in local politics. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine unions supporting a public employment program to build public housing.
Public housing in one city doesn’t mess with the money flow enough to matter, not like eliminating zoning would do. For instance, even the decidedly neoliberal Gil Cedillo was recently poised to force a sale of Hillside Villa for public housing. I’ll bet actual money that the City of LA will break ground on a publicly-owned housing project before zoning laws are changed enough to take CMs out of the process. Of course I could be totally wrong, but not so obviously wrong that it makes sense to say that public housing in Los Angeles requires a revolution. In Los Angeles public housing is a matter of ordinary politics while abolishing police or zoning codes requires a revolution.
- I’m not here to argue in favor of zoning codes, by the way. I think they, along with all other laws, should be repealed immediately.
- When I say Los Angeles or the City of Los Angeles or the City I mean the municipal government of the City of Los Angeles, abbreviated CoLA.
- Which is not to say that everyone who disagrees with me is ignorant, just that if they’re ignorant I don’t care whether they agree or disagree with me. I’m arguing that in this case, to me, their ideas aren’t worth the time it takes to engage with them. There are at least some people who disagree with me but do in fact understand how to get things done in the City of Los Angeles. I have a completely different problem with these folks. Part of what it takes to get things done politically in Los Angeles is psychopathic brutality, and that’s what makes these people’s thoughts much more dangerous than useless. If they understand the kind of harm it takes to implement the kinds of policies they support on the basis of theorized urbanity and still support those policies they’re murderers. I don’t ignore them because they’re ignorant, instead I attack them because they’re dangerous, but not in this essay.
- The theory behind it is not sound and I don’t think it would work anywhere. I think it’s a scam everywhere just like it is here, but I’m not from everywhere and I can’t be sure, so I’m just expressing an unsupported and tentative opinion in that regard. But I do know how things work and don’t work in Los Angeles and am only interested in engaging in localized and factually grounded discussion.
- It wouldn’t.
- Government technology in this sense doesn’t just mean just physical machinery like streetlights, traffic signals, or surveillance drones. It refers to any kind of tool, tangible or not, used by governments to carry out their function (which is solely the control and provision of labor to capital, but that’s beyond the scope of this or any other essay I’m likely to write). Laws are an archetypal form of government technology.
- Zillionaires are the kinds of people who have the power to singlehandedly get a law passed. Many politicians aren’t zillionaires but some, like Donald Trump and Gavin Newsom, are.
- More than their share.
- For what it’s worth other people use zoning codes for other purposes. NIMBYs really do use them to fight apartment buildings. But unlike zillionaires and politicians NIMBYs don’t have the power to enact laws, so their purposes aren’t especially important except as a source of YIMBY strawmannery.
- This is absolutely not to say that it’s impossible to get bad laws repealed. Politicians want above all else to keep their jobs. Often being a politician is the only job skill they have and the money’s good. The retirement benefits, which in Los Angeles often take the form of cushy lobbying jobs, are great. Politicians can be frightened into doing what their constituents want, but it’s a difficult and time intensive process and their opponents aren’t generally paid to engage in it, and as soon as the attention lapses zillionaires, via their paid lobbyists, regain all lost ground immediately. It’s also possible for laws to lose so much credibility that they’ll never be enforced whether or not they’re repealed. And it may even happen that zoning laws could get repealed here, but not until there’s another system ready to drop into place to keep the money and power flowing.