America’s second-largest city hit a new low last October, when leaked audio from 2021 exposed Los Angeles City Council president Nury Martinez making ugly racial remarks, with Council Member Gil Cedillo, Council Member Kevin de León, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera egging her on. While Martinez and Herrera resigned, and Cedillo allowed his term to lapse, de León clings to power, occasionally brawling with recall proponents for good measure.
While the remarks drew most of the media coverage, the purpose of the conversation was scandalous in its own right: Martinez and company were conspiring to redraw council districts to their benefit. At one point, they called for the breakup of a renter-dominated district helmed by Nithya Raman, who raised the need to move beyond the exclusionary-zoning laws that make it so hard to build in Los Angeles. The redistricting plan adopted around this time ultimately did exactly that, with Raman losing about 40 percent of her constituents.
For the Los Angeles City Council, the leaked audio is only the latest episode in a decade defined by petty turf wars, corruption scandals, and cratering public trust. Lurking just under the surface in these seemingly disparate crises is the council’s dysfunctional relationship with how the city regulates growth. Many wise reform ideas are on the table, from redistricting reform to multimember districts. But without addressing the zoning policies that have made the council so small-minded, corrupt, and exclusionary, don’t expect much to change.
In July 2020, former Los Angeles council member Mitchell Englander pled guilty to felony charges related to a federal corruption probe into his participation in a pay-to-play system. But who was paying, and why? As with an ongoing case against former council member José Huizar—who had been chair of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee—developers were allegedly paying off council members to secure favorable treatment within the city’s byzantine zoning system, a necessary permitting hurdle for anyone seeking to build in Los Angeles.
The original idea of zoning was simple: if a development complied with the use, density, and design rules in its district, as outlined in a zoning ordinance and assigned by a zoning map, securing permits would be as simple as a visit to the Department of Building and Safety. For much of the past century, this relatively impartial and straightforward system—variously called “as-of-right” or “by-right” permitting—governed what was built.
In Los Angeles, however, this system has largely fallen apart. Starting in the 1960s, zoning was aggressively tightened, such that little could be built without some sort of waiver from the rules. A series of community plans, often crafted by incumbent property owners committed to blocking anything from getting built near them, dramatically downzoned the city, reducing what could legally be built on most parcels. In 1986, voters passed Proposition U, making it nearly impossible to build anything other than a strip mall in most of the city’s commercial districts.
By one estimate, these efforts collectively slashed the zoned capacity of Los Angeles from 10 million units in 1960 down to 3.9 million units in 1990. An object of special ire in these downzonings was low-rise apartment buildings. In the early 1960s, it was common to see detached single-family homes developed into dingbat apartments—two- or three-story apartment complexes—which helped keep the city, including some of its most desirable areas, affordable to families with modest incomes. Today, such apartments are illegal to build in three-quarters of all residential areas.
The implications of this shift are captured in a recent study of the changing scale and geography of development in Los Angeles: where new apartments were once small and scattered across the city, today they are large and heavily concentrated in the handful of neighborhoods where apartments are still allowed, such as downtown. Worse yet, virtually all these projects require some relief from the city’s onerous zoning regulations—from parking mandates to density restrictions—forcing them into a permitting system rife with delays, risk, and abuse.
Indeed, most Los Angeles projects today must go through a discretionary permitting process, wherein applicants depend on the ad hoc approval of the Los Angeles City Council for permits. Even before reaching the council, such reviews can cause headaches: discretionary projects need to go through California’s infamous environmental-review process, and according to recent research that I coauthored, that process runs nearly twice as long as it does for as-of-right projects. This raises the costs of those projects that get built—and kills many more in the cradle.
But the chaos imposed by discretionary permitting really begins only when a project finally gets to the council: like many city councils, L.A.’s has quietly backed into a system of councilmanic prerogative—emphasis on manic—wherein each council member enjoys total deference in dictating the zoning for his or her district. This has turned the city into a collection of 15 fiefdoms, erasing any notion of rational planning, while creating an irresistible opportunity to squeeze donors, if not engage in outright corruption. It’s a system that gives sitting council members little incentive to reform.
Even when classic quid-pro-quo corruption isn’t involved, the system is no less destructive. For starters, the restrictive zoning that underwrites it is the reason that Los Angeles builds very little housing. Despite a strong demand for housing, the city permits new development at a lower rate than struggling Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, to say nothing of booming Sun Belt cities like Nashville and Austin. Not by accident, Los Angeles remains one of the most expensive places in the United States to rent or own a home, driving a steady stream of working- and middle-class Angelenos to move to cheaper cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
And because of councilmanic prerogative, the housing that Los Angeles does build often ends up in the wrong places. If a council member makes it clear that he or she opposes new development—as is often the case in affluent and jobs-rich parts of the city—don’t expect to see much get built. Such was the case under the reign of arch-NIMBY former council member Paul Koretz: developers knew not to bother proposing anything in West Los Angeles, shifting the burden of new housing onto less affluent neighborhoods like Koreatown and South Los Angeles. This dynamic has helped keep Los Angeles one of the most segregated cities in the country.
The power to determine what gets built where is the power to determine who gets to live where. It’s a power that Los Angeles council members have harnessed to consolidate their political bases, squeeze developers for “donations,” and keep out residents who might pose a political threat—such as potentially pro-housing renters in a homeowner-dominated district. The result is a system that’s perfect for antidevelopment residents who profit from housing scarcity and council members willing to grease palms, but a disaster for anyone who merely wants to live in Los Angeles—and the developers who might want to build housing for them.
Is there any hope for reforming this system? Of the proposals floated, changing the redistricting process is clearly necessary. Introducing multimember and at-large districts might help to limit councilmanic prerogative, introducing at least some room for discussion in the council’s zoning decisions. Stricter campaign finance and ethics rules would, at best, manage the symptoms of a broken system. And while expanding the council might be good for other reasons, it would likely make its dysfunctional relationship with zoning even worse. If you think 15 fiefdoms are bad, try 50.
Yet among even the more fanciful reform ideas, one obvious fix has been curiously absent: Why not take zoning away from the Los Angeles City Council? If the idea seems absurd, consider Washington, D.C., a city that has almost entirely eliminated zoning-related corruption and builds at roughly twice the rate as Los Angeles. In D.C., the council votes on a Comprehensive Plan every decade, but its involvement largely stops there, with the D.C. Office of Planning undertaking neighborhood rezonings and an appointed Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment rendering decisions on individual projects.
Depoliticizing zoning in Los Angeles would require charter amendments, but then, so would every serious reform under discussion. Handing zoning policy back to the city’s unusually competent Department of City Planning—which has shepherded through successful initiatives like the Transit Oriented Communities incentive program and the legalization of accessory dwelling units—would put the city back on a path to affordability. It would also eliminate the main incentive for the city council to uphold restrictive zoning.
And who knows? Without annual scandals related to permitting corruption or frivolous fights over spot rezoning consuming its time, perhaps the council could even get on with the business of governing Los Angeles.