Last month, a federal judge ruled that the City of Los Angeles and Orange County must begin to offer shelter or housing to its homeless population. The city has developed a reputation for its sprawling homelessness; today thousands of Angelenos have nowhere to sleep but area parks, business districts and makeshift tent cities like Skid Row, which now spans 50 city blocks.

The judge outlines numerous issues in his ruling, but he underscores how years of systemic racism through redlining, discriminatory zoning and gentrification — amongst other policies designed to segregate — have led to this now uncontrollable problem of homelessness.

Los Angeles and Orange County are not alone. Many cities and states are facing similar problems, and forward-thinking legislatures are finally taking note and enacting changes to prevent the same fate. 

Changing the definition of “family” to allow unrelated individuals to live together

I may be showing my age here, but hopefully some of you recall the show “Golden Girls,” where four active seniors decided to live together. Only two of the main characters were related by blood. For a litany of reasons, “Golden Girls” was ahead of its time, and this includes how they showcased the new normal for household living situations.

Whether it be a group of active seniors, immigrants trying to establish themselves or younger individuals who are trying to save money to pay off student loans, we’re seeing more cases where individuals want to reside together for social and economic reasons. 

Since 1950, home sizes have nearly tripled, but family sizes have declined. According to AARP research, one and two person households make up more than 73 percent of the U.S. population, yet studio and one bedroom units comprise only 12.5 percent of the existing housing stock. The largest demographic group is singles living alone, which at 28 percent of the population makes up a greater share than all nuclear and single-parent families combined.

A major roadblock to more co-living households has been outdated zoning policy that regulates how many “unrelated individuals” may reside together. These policies emerged in response to desegregation and the civil rights movement and, frankly, they remain on the books for the exact same reason today: to exclude people from certain neighborhoods based on income and race. 

Recently, however, the legislatures of Washington, Oregon and Iowa voted to join a handful of other states whose courts have ruled that such occupancy limits are unconstitutional.

What’s next? More states and cities will (and should) topple these policies

Not that they will do this, but affordable housing advocates could certainly use this as a “we told you so” moment. For decades, housing and land use experts have decried occupancy caps and zoning limitations, pointing to unsustainable friction in the ability to create new housing, rising costs and the ensuing vicious cycle that leads people to move away from cities to find a decent, affordable place to live that’s anywhere near their place of employment. Consequences include growing traffic and an inability for cities to find “essential workers” to clean offices, teach in schools, patrol the streets or work in food service.

For any policymakers who see these issues creeping into their own jurisdictions — this moment is your wake up call.

Historically, county commissions and city councils have had the toughest time enacting these changes. More often than not, local officials are beholden to powerful neighborhood groups and NIMBYs (those who say “not in my backyard”) who fear their property values will decline due to more multifamily units — despite a mountain of data to the contrary. Still, some cities see the writing on the wall and are making changes, though I fear they are not moving fast enough. The City of Denver tried to change its household caps to eight unrelated individuals living together, but they could only increase the number to five for the law’s passage. 

Unlike Denver, most U.S. cities have proven their inability to remove exclusionary barriers to housing, which is why several states and the federal government are stepping in as well. In the last months of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new guidance to local jurisdictions, encouraging more shared housing and reminding them of the Fair Housing Act. Not surprisingly, the Biden administration recently proposed allocating an additional $12.5 million for HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to focus on eliminating exclusionary zoning laws like prohibitions of multifamily housing, bringing this total to $85 million. Given the role of the federal government in administering Civil Rights and Fair Housing laws, I would expect (and hope) to see an even greater push for more uniformity across localities against discriminatory zoning definitions or exclusionary districts.

Overall, this tipping point did not arrive like a thief in the night. It has been slowing building for decades and many are only realizing the damage now. As a result, we should see more removal of exclusionary housing policies in the months and years ahead. It may not be for the right reasons, but one thing is clear — further inaction will not be tenable for much longer.

Atticus LeBlanc has 19 years of experience in housing and land-use and is the founder and CEO of PadSplit, an affordable housing marketplace that focuses on aligning incentives between property owners, cities, nonprofits and those who seek clean, safe and affordable housing.


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Published on May 27, 2021