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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Meaningful Action: Evaluating Local Government Plans to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing in California


A 2018 California law requires local governments to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) in their General Plan’s housing element. This paper examines how eight municipalities reacted to this requirement in three areas of their 2021 plans: the analysis of fair housing issues, proposed fair housing programs, and the location of sites identified for low-income housing development. We consider whether these cities’ over 200 fair housing programs are meaningful actions by evaluating their potential impact, and measure the distribution of proposed sites for new low-income housing across neighborhoods. The cities created many new programs in response to the mandate; however, most programs do not meaningfully advance fair housing goals. Moreover, most cities do not modify land-use plans to allow affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. Additionally, we find a mismatch in the plans. The affluent, majority-white cities that developed more meaningful fair housing programs continued to concentrate sites for affordable housing in their least affluent neighborhoods. Our analysis of potential program impact allows us to identify AFFH oversight challenges and make recommendations for AFFH guidelines. We focus on California, but the research is relevant to federal AFFH implementation and raises questions about how to best advance fair housing goals.

Do Land Use Plans Affirmatively Further Fair Housing?


Problem, research strategy, and findings

The 1968 Fair Housing Act required local government recipients of federal money to take meaningful actions to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH). Current fair housing analysis requirements are copious but do not request an assessment of how land use policies affect the potential for neighborhood integration. A recent California law requires local governments to include AFFH analysis in existing planning processes, and state guidelines encourage the measurement of the spatial distribution of planned sites for low-income housing with respect to opportunity. We propose and evaluate a fair housing land use score (FHLUS) that measures whether local governments’ land use policies promote inclusion across neighborhoods. We illustrate the FHLUS by examining zoning and housing plans for three municipalities in California that differ in terms of neighborhood variation in incomes. In all three cases, we found that municipal zoning and housing plans exacerbated patterns of segregation rather than reversed them. Our metric is more precise than existing approaches, but all measures of this phenomenon will be less useful in smaller, more homogenous jurisdictions. The analysis raises important questions about the geographic scale and outcome measures for AFFH analysis and expectations for municipalities of different sizes and levels of diversity.

Takeaway for practice

Our metric is a useful tool for advocates and planners at all levels of government. We recommend the federal government consider incorporating it into the AFFH toolkit and practicing planners employ the measure to analyze local zoning and investment decisions. The Technical Appendix is a step-by-step guide, including an Excel formula.

Does Discretion Delay Development?


Problem, research strategy, and findingsLocal governments sometimes approve multifamily housing through a discretionary process, meaning a public body must vote to entitle the proposal before it can seek a building permit. By-right entitlement, in contrast, allows developers to apply directly for a building permit. We tested the hypothesis that by-right approvals are faster. Faster approval can make multifamily development more feasible, which can in turn improve housing affordability. Analyses of approval pathways are often confounded by project size and complexity, but we exploited a provision in the Los Angeles Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) program that allowed many large projects to use by-right approval. Using data from roughly 350 multifamily projects permitted in Los Angeles (CA) from January 2018 through March 2020, we compared approval timelines for both by-right and discretionary projects. We found that by-right projects were permitted 28% faster than discretionary projects, controlling for project and neighborhood characteristics. By-right projects also had less variance in their approval times, suggesting that by-right approval offers not just more speed but more certainty.

Takeaway for practicePlanners should create more opportunities for multifamily housing to be permitted by-right. Despite some selection bias in our study, evidence from the TOC program suggests that creating a by-right option would accelerate approval time and thus substantially benefit housing production. The faster approval timelines, moreover, have been accompanied by an increase in average project size and the number of units reserved for low-income households.

Who Lives in Vehicles and Why? Understanding Vehicular Homelessness in Los Angeles


Homelessness continues to grow and to affect the lives of an increasingly diverse group of individuals. Many scholars have studied people living in homeless shelters and outdoors in tents. An overlooked population is the growing number of the unhoused living in vehicles. We draw on data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Homeless Demographic Survey to understand the characteristics of people living in vehicles and the extent to which they differ from the nonvehicular unhoused population. Compared to those living in tents, in makeshift shelters, and in public spaces, people living in vehicles are more likely to be women and to live in larger households with children, and are less likely to be chronically unhoused. These findings will help effectively target policies and services. Safe parking programs can provide temporary relief to those living in vehicles and, if done well, the interventions necessary to transition into permanent housing.

Planning for and Against Vehicular Homelessness: Spatial Trends and Determinants of Vehicular Dwelling in Los Angeles


Problem, research strategy, and findings

Shelter is a necessity, yet approximately 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States are unhoused. Public attention to homelessness has centered on individuals sitting and sleeping in public spaces. However, as many as 50% of the unsheltered live in vehicles. For people sleeping in vehicles, finding a safe place to park is an ongoing challenge, further complicated by the growing number of ordinances restricting vehicular dwelling. We drew on point-in-time count data from the Los Angeles (CA) Homeless Services Authority to examine spatial patterns of vehicular homelessness in Los Angeles from 2016 to 2020. We tested the relationship between the presence of vehicle regulations and the number of people sleeping in vehicles. Although the data likely underestimated vehicular homelessness, we found that ordinances directly reduced the number of people living in vehicles in particular census tracts. On average, cities with citywide and overnight bans had greater impacts on people sleeping in vehicles than cities with less restrictive ordinances. However, the indirect effects in neighboring tracts were stronger and demonstrate the role of these ordinances in simply shifting the vehicular homeless between areas.

Takeaway for practice

Given the slow pace of delivering permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, cities should reduce the harm and precariousness of living in vehicles. Strategies to do this include the reform of punitive vehicle towing and vehicle dwelling regulations. Safe parking programs can provide individuals with a safe place to park their vehicles at night, offer ancillary services, and deter harassment from neighborhood residents and the police. Longer term, transformative change will require additional policies and programs to place people into permanently affordable housing.

Last Thoughts From Manville, Monkkonen, and Lens


This article responds to: The View From Minneapolis: Comments on “Death to Single-Family Zoning” and “It’s Time to End Single-Family Zoning”, Ending Single-Family Zoning: Is There a Plan B?, Not a Matter of Choice: Eliminating Single-Family Zoning, Calls to End All Single-Family Zoning Need More Scrutiny, Eliminating Existing Single-Family Zoning Is a Mistake, Though Rumors of Its Demise Might Be Exaggerated…, The Detached Single-Family Home Genie and Its Bottle

It's Time to End Single-Family Zoning


Local planning in the United States is unique in the amount of land it reserves for detached single-family homes. This privileging of single-family homes, normally called R1 zoning, exacerbates inequality and undermines efficiency. R1’s origins are unpleasant: Stained by explicitly classist and implicitly racist motivations, R1 today continues to promote exclusion. It makes it harder for people to access high-opportunity places, and in expensive regions it contributes to shortages of housing, thereby benefiting homeowners at the expense of renters and forcing many housing consumers to spend more on housing. Stacked against these drawbacks, moreover, are a series of only weak arguments in R1’s favor about preferences, aesthetics, and a single-family way of life. We demonstrate that these pro-R1 concerns are either specious, or can be addressed in ways less socially harmful than R1. Given the strong arguments against R1 and the weak arguments for it, we contend planners should work to abolish R1 single-family zoning.