Here’s How LA’s Suburban-Style Zoning Contributes To Racial Disparities
Zoning can determine a whole lot more than what buildings are allowed on your street.
A new study finds that 78% of residential land in the greater Los Angeles area is zoned exclusively for single-family houses, and that this style of zoning produces communities that are whiter, wealthier and that provide better life outcomes for children.
Samir Gambhir, director of the Equity Metrics Program at UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, said his team’s findings also show that L.A. cities have used zoning as “a mechanism to hoard resources and keep people of other communities out.”
Zoning: The Code That Shapes Your Neighborhood
Picture a typical Southern California suburb. You might be seeing palm trees standing guard over row upon row of detached houses, stretching as far as the eye can see.
The neighborhood you’re picturing looks that way because of zoning — the arcane local laws that determine what can get built where.
The UC Berkeley researchers spent a year pouring through zoning laws from 191 different local governments throughout the greater L.A. area. They used that information to create maps that show just how much single-family zoning dominates different parts of Southern California.
The map for the city of Los Angeles shows that even in a place with many dense, urban neighborhoods, the vast majority of residential land — 74% to be exact — is reserved for single-family homes.
L.A.’s map shows single-family zoning blanketing the San Fernando Valley and many Westside neighborhoods, while Downtown L.A., Hollywood and parts of South L.A. allow for apartment buildings.
Other maps reveal stark regional divides in what L.A. cities allow developers to build. Just 39% of Inglewood’s residential land is reserved for single-family homes, while in Rancho Palos Verdes that figure is 97%.
When Single-Family Zoning Goes Up, Latino Populations Go Down
The researchers found strong correlations between zoning patterns and racial demographics.
Specifically, they saw that L.A. cities with high rates of single-family zoning had higher proportions of white and Asian residents — and dramatically smaller Latino populations.
While noting that people of different racial backgrounds are not legally barred from buying homes wherever they want, study co-author Stephen Menendian, the Othering and Belonging Institute’s director of research, said given L.A.’s huge racial wealth gaps, the question is where people can afford to live.
“It's much harder for people of color — who don't have generational wealth, who can't afford down payments, who don't have parents who can assist because their parents are themselves low income and poor and maybe don't have a retirement — to buy into these neighborhoods,” he said.
The study found that home prices rise along with the predominance of single-family zoning. On average, houses in parts of Southern California with restrictive zoning laws cost twice as much (about $811,000) as houses in areas with permissive zoning laws (about $406,000).
The researchers also found that zoning appears to have a profound effect on children’s life outcomes. Across races and income levels, the study found that kids raised in parts of L.A. dominated by single-family zoning tended to earn higher incomes in adulthood.
Menendian said the study’s findings on economic mobility for Black children in Southern California were particularly troubling. Children born into high-income Black families had low rates of earning high incomes as adults — unless they were also born in cities zoned almost entirely for single-family homes.
“That to me is very disturbing,” he said. “Because it's essentially saying that the only shot they have at the American Dream is growing up in an exclusionary, probably predominantly white community.”
Will Cities Move To Loosen Strict Zoning Laws?
Single-family zoning has long been a polarizing political issue in Southern California.
Many housing advocates have pushed local governments to allow denser housing near job centers and transit lines. They argue that a shortage of affordable housing is the primary driver of L.A.'s unaffordable housing costs and that Southern California won’t be able to meet a state mandate of planning for 1.3 million new homes over the next eight years without accommodating more density.
State lawmakers have also been trying to modestly increase density in historically exclusive suburbs. Two recently enacted state laws, SB 9 and SB 10, now allow more units of housing to be built on single-family lots across California.
However, many Southern California politicians view single-family zoning as sacrosanct — something that local homeowners want to see preserved at all cost. Elected leaders on the board of a regional planning organization recently voted to endorse a (now failed) November ballot initiative that aimed to override state laws allowing more housing density.
After the UC Berkeley researchers released a similar study in 2020 looking at zoning in the Bay Area, Berkeley’s city council voted to explore plans for ending single-family zoning in the city. Berkeley was the first city in the country to adopt single-family zoning, an origin story that has racist roots dating back to 1916.
For the L.A. study, the researchers identified 13 cities they believe are most in need of zoning reform. That list includes wealthy enclaves such as Bradbury, Rolling Hills and La Cañada Flintridge, where essentially all residential land is reserved for single-family homes.
Menendian said he hopes those cities will follow Berkeley’s lead, but he feels that stronger statewide reforms are needed.
“That needs to be systematic and comprehensive, and it needs to go much further than SB 9 and SB 10 did,” he said.