A curious difference between LA and SF


Lucy and the boys and I spent the weekend in SF with one of my best friends and his family.

Because I’m me, I spent a bunch of that time looking at buildings. As I was admiring the tall, thin, ornate homes (which must date to the 1890s-1920s), I had a startling realization: Those properties have no front or side setbacks. They’re right up on the street and right next to each other.

If you live in LA, and particularly if you’re in real estate here, you know that almost every single lot in LA is zoned in such a way as to require that 10-15′ in front of each structure and 3-5′ of space on each side remain undeveloped.

To understand the implications of this crazy law, consider a standard LA lot of 7500 sq ft, which is 50′ wide by 150′ deep. Assuming a 15′ front set back and 3′ on either side, at least 1,650 sq ft of the lot are unusable (and that’s before you get into the rear setback, which is often 10-15′ as well). That’s 22% of the lot!!

Why does the city require that 22% of each lot remain unusable? The arguments are basically around health and safety. The theory is that it retards the spread of fire, makes it much less likely that one building’s collapse with imperil its neighbors, gives more rooms windows.

You have to consider what we are giving up with our insane zoning:

  1. Most importantly, we’re wasting 22% of the residential land in the city. Think of how crazy that is!
  2. By failing to build on that land, we’re artificially decreasing the density of our development, which directly leads to less property value per ft of roads, sewer, etc., which leads to having less property tax revenue than we need to sustain our infrastructure;
  3. Because we insist on side-setbacks, it takes 22% longer to walk anywhere;
  4. Our front setbacks require front lawns, which are (a) wasted, because no one wants to hang out where there’s no privacy, and (2) insanely wasteful of water;
  5. Modern building technologies make it possible to develop structure right next to each other without creating undue risk… otherwise, why does the city allow small lot subdivisions, which are often built 6″ apart?

LA needs to pick a few neighborhoods near transit and radically change the zoning to get rid of the setbacks (and reduce parking requirements). The resulting re-development will have the following effects in those areas:

  1. Increase property values (because you’ll be able to build more densely on a given piece of land);
  2. Increase housing supply (because people will immediately start building); and
  3. Increase property tax revenue (because of all the new building)

If we were really smart, we’d set aside the incremental tax revenue generated by this strategy to fund the expansion of our public transit system, in order to repeat the trick in other areas.