Why our infrastructure is falling apart

The NY Times had an interesting piece over the weekend about LA’s failing infrastructure. It focused, as all these pieces do, on the age of our pipes, sidewalks, etc., plus on CA’s general tax-aversion.

What it left out was any discussion of the role our zoning code plays.

Here’s the deal: If, as a city, you make it difficult to build dense multifamily, you do two things, both of which are awful:

  1. You force people to spread out. This means that you need to maintain more road miles per person, more sewer pipe miles, more water pipe miles, etc. So your costs are higher; and
  2. You limit the value of your land and therefore artificially reduce your tax base. There’s a reason developers want to build more units on every given plot of land… the land is worth more if you can fit more people on it (either via rent or condo sale proceeds). Property taxes (imperfectly, due to Prop 13) reflect the value of the land, so less density equals less tax revenue.

So that’s why we’re in the position we’re in: An expensive to maintain infrastructure with limited revenue to pay for it.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back and change the way LA developed. We’re stuck with, for example, maintaining absurd one lane roads up in the hills, the utilities that service the homes up there, and the fire department required to prevent them from burning down.

But we can change the zoning code, right now, to prevent further sprawl and begin to densify core neighborhoods of the city. Changing the zoning code to allow for much denser development wouldn’t cost anything and would dramatically increase property values in the affected neighborhoods, leading to happy owners and a city with sufficient resources to re-invest in a world-class infrastructure.