Causes of a housing crisis: looking at restrictive building permit policies and zoning laws in California

In last week's session of our course on ‘Political Ecology and Spatial Development’, Paavo Monkkonen from UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs presented his research on the housing crisis in the U.S. state of California.

His work examines the historical trends related to housing, the prevalence of single-family homes, the racialised and classed incorporation of cities, and the policies that have helped or hindered housing access and affordability in the state.

Despite the profits made by real estate developers and smaller-scale landlords, it is clear that housing is increasingly unaffordable for most people. As a result, many people live in over-crowded and over-priced accommodations, become unhoused (in the city of Los Angeles, in greater numbers than anywhere else in the country), and many are forced to relocate to other states.

Prof. Paavo Monkkonen described California’s restrictive building permit policies and zoning laws, and how they tend to favour high-income residents and subsidies for homeowners and have significantly contributed to this current housing crisis. He contextualizes these issues within a long history of structural segregation and politically conservative policies, which have paved the way for policies and zoning laws that contribute to the human need of housing often being reduced to an profitable and appreciating asset.

Up until today, the construction of social and affordable housing has been greatly hindered, although there have been some important changes in policy and public perception that unfortunately do not meet housing needs, but may open the pathway to doing so.

Strategies that have addressed this pressing issue include the US state’s push for local laws to allow for ADU’s (Accessory Dwelling Units) to transform single-family homes into multiple-family homes. Additionally, public and social advocates call for municipal commitments to build more affordable housing. There have been some attempts to follow these calls. For example, the Governor of California's promise of 3.5 million newly constructed housing units.

However, until today only 800,000 of these units have been built. Moreover, wealthy homeowners – who are often not representative of the broader community – have opposed upzoning in their neighbourhoods, successfully impeding mayoral attempts in Los Angeles to construct dense multiple-family and -unit housing in various areas of the city. Commitments on the federal level to plan for more affordable and social housing have not yet been fulfilled either.