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Do Land Use Regulations Matter? Why and How?

  • Author(s): Gabbe, Charles Joshua
  • Advisor(s): Crane, Randall D
  • et al.

American cities face tremendous challenges including housing affordability, rising economic inequality, and climate change. Land use regulatory reform can play an important role in addressing these issues. But, the evolution, determinants, and effects of land use regulations remain unclear. I use Los Angeles as a case study to answer important questions about why and how land use regulations matter. I organize the dissertation as three related but independent papers.

The first paper characterizes how land use regulations change. In Los Angeles, zoning designations were largely static between 2002 and 2014; the city rezoned only about two percent of its parcel land area during this period. While rezonings were uncommon, the city adopted new land use regulations or expanded existing regulations, including several transit-oriented development plans, a density bonus ordinance, an adaptive reuse ordinance, and the expansion of historic preservation overlays. In general, this illustrates a bifurcated evolution of regulations. Single-family neighborhoods remain protected, while significant changes occur in downtown Los Angeles and some high-density neighborhoods near transit.

The second paper examines why zoning is changed. I use logistic regression models to analyze the relationship between parcel-scale “upzoning” and housing demand factors, supply constraints, the influence of interest groups, and municipal policy drivers. I find that upzoning in Los Angeles follows the path of biggest opportunity and least political resistance. My research supports the “homevoter hypothesis,” meaning that concentrations of homeowners deter zoning changes to allow higher densities.

The third paper explains how regulations matter for housing production. Using negative binomial regression models, I find strong associations between high-density zoning and multifamily housing production across Los Angeles. In the city’s oldest transit-oriented development (TOD) plan area, the average multifamily development was built at 132% of the baseline allowable residential density, 107% of the allowable floor area ratio, and 102% of the allowable height. The regression results and the TOD analysis provide evidence that developers would build more densely, in neighborhoods with housing demand, if land use regulations were more permissive.

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