There is a solution to the housing crisis in Los Angeles that the city may be overlooking. Even better, it is free and easy to implement (with just a quick vote). Graduated density zoning or creative zoning is a process where the city can increase the density on assembled land sites in all or specific areas of the city. It doesn’t require a change to the general plan and would help developers avoid the exemption process. Graduated density zoning has been used in Simi Valley and Glendale, as well as other markets, like New Jersey, and has been tremendously successful. Donald Shoup, professor in the Department of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, argues for the benefits of graduated density zoning in his recent UCLA economic letter, which outlines the benefits and implantation as well as success stories. To find out more, we sat down with Shoup for an exclusive interview, and found that this may be the solution to housing shortages and affordability issues that the city needs. What exactly is graduated density zoning?

Donald Shoup: If the city wants to encourage land assembly, creative zoning increases the density of housing allowed on larger sites. That is, if you can combine two smaller sites into one larger site, you get a higher density allowance so that you could get more than twice as much housing on one big lot than you could on two small lots. This encourages people to combine their land and profit from the higher density allowance if they can combine their land in a larger site. A similar situation happened in Simi Valley. There were several land parcels left over from the 1920s, about an acre of so, and they were long and thin, making it hard to develop. So, they used creative zoning to double the density allowed for any site greater than 13 acres, and the owners began to talk to each other. It caused a lot of interest in assembly. How is this different from the city’s current approach to land assembly?

Shoup: Instead of using an eminent domain to buy and assemble small parcels, which is what has been done in L.A. for a long time and creates a lot of ill will because it doesn’t benefit the original land owners. This would mean that the original land owners benefit from the assembly, and the buyer benefits as well because they get the benefit of higher density. This is very fair to the original owners, who are often the people that are opposing development. Where would the city implement this plan?

Shoup: Around transit is an obvious place to do this. We are building a lot of transit, and it makes sense to increase the zoning around those areas. Instead of having a lot of small individual redevelopment, you could have one large one. The city would also be able to tailor the density bonus to the size of parcels that you want. It would or could only be done in select areas where the city wants to see higher density redevelopment, and the other parts of town would be unaffected. Would this be an alternative to going through the lengthy process of revising the general plan?

Shoup: Yes, I think so. There wouldn’t be any requests for spot zoning, meaning when a developer buys a land site and asks for higher density on that site. With graduated density zoning, you would only get the higher density if there was a site that you had assembled. You wouldn’t have to pressure the city or request an exemption or individual spot rezoning. That is contributing to a lot of the opposition to development in Los Angeles. Developers wouldn’t need to ask for exemptions from the plan or variances from the plan because this would be part of the plan. What are the benefits of this plan:

Shoup: This is something that is easy to do and doesn’t cost the city anything. If it doesn’t work, nothing happens. It isn’t like urban renewal, where the government buys a lot of land, tears down buildings and then resells the land to a private party. That does cost a lot of money, and it enrages the citizens. This would work by simply allowing it to happen. It is utterly different, and it relies on the real estate market and voluntary action. No one has to sell anything, but a lot of land owners will recognize that this is the best value that they might ever get.