There are many ways to try to understand how communities regulate land. Researchers in California and across the country have surveyed planning professionals to understand California's land use regulation. Several leading surveys include statewide and national surveys. Others catalog and analyze land use regulation through mapping tools. Publicly available maps explore the prevalence of single family only zoning in California communities across entire regions. There is also ongoing work to explore new techniques to study land use regulation as well.
We chose a comprehensive approach to understanding land use regulation within specific locations. Our work blends different research methods from law, urban planning, and social science. We chose this approach to answer many of the pressing questions that dominate state and national housing policy debates within local contexts. In other words, we seek to understand how fair housing and climate policy operate within communities and neighborhoods, as well as regions.
The Comprehensive Assessment of Land Use Entitlements Study (CALES) analyzes how cities approve (and sometimes delay) new multi-family housing using granular local-level housing planning, zoning, and development approval data. We combine zoning analysis, approval data, and interviews to understand how cities and counties regulate land and then how they apply regulation and existing climate and fair housing policy. Partnership for Land Use Insights uses this mixed methods case study approach across all our research.
We explore how land use regulation (approval processes and environmental review, state and local) impacts different types of residential development, including transit-oriented development, 100% affordable development, and exurban greenfield development.
How long did approval take? What were the pathways to approval?
We began our research in California. We first studied the planning and zoning regulations of five bay area cities and published initial working papers and findings in 2018. Since then, we have completed work in 20 jurisdictions across California—16 large cities that would likely approve transit-oriented residential development, and one city and three counties that would likely approve exurban development. We are adding another 7 jurisdictions across California to our dataset and will be sharing that work on this website in late summer 2022.
Each time we study a jurisdiction, we start with legal research. In California’s cities, that typically involves reviewing the largest-scale planning tools (the General Plan) and then drilling down to the smallest-scale level (use and development controls found in ordinances, zoning maps, and specific plans). Outside of California, that can begin with examining the municipal code and zoning ordinances.
We also use spatial analysis of zoning and planning to complement our legal research. We call this our base zoning analysis–where we use zoning maps and the text of ordinances (or maps and texts associated with specific plans) to group use and density controls into simplified categories. In California, we created and defined these categories using state law definitions for what zoning allows for housing for all income levels. This is a necessary (but insufficient) condition to build affordable housing. We then explore whether the zoned land within a jurisdiction we are studying would allow housing for all income levels without a project proponent asking the jurisdiction to change its existing land use rules.
This spatial zoning analysis allows us to calculate how much land jurisdictions make available for multi-family affordable housing and to compare how jurisdictions zone their land. It is a fast way to examine how much zoned land is available for more dense housing types.
To better understand approval processes, we complement our legal research by gathering data on how jurisdictions have applied land use regulation over years. We focus on data that illustrates how jurisdictions approve all residential or mixed-use developments of five units or more approved by our study jurisdictions. The data we gather includes documents that detail how planners and local elected officials have applied local and state land use regulation. By studying and coding staff reports, board agendas and meeting meetings, we can draw on many objective data points to tell us not only what type of housing a jurisdiction approved, but what the pathway to approval required. We then found and added in the geographic coordinates for each proposed development. This allows us to look at how jurisdictions applied land use law using maps; we can layer our work over existing maps that examine access to neighborhoods of opportunity, risks of environmental health hazards, and risk of wildfire hazard.
We also interviewed stakeholders in the residential development process in all 20 jurisdictions.
For more detail about our methods, please review the methods section of this report to the California Air Resources Board.
We offer new, robust, high-quality data sets for each jurisdiction we study. Our work tells you about the law “on the books” in each study city or county, but it also tells you about how these cities or counties have applied law and policies over time. Our conclusions are based on empirical objective evidence, not anecdotal or subjective evidence. We also do not rely on self-reported data on to understand what land use regulation exists within the places we study, or how governments apply regulation.
We present what we’ve learned from approvals that jurisdictions issued in 2014 - 2017. We are currently integrating data on approvals from 2018, 2019, and 2020 .
Our research approach allowed us to collect data from a variety of sources, including housing approval data from actual entitlements cities and counties issued over four years, diverse stakeholder interviews, GIS zoning data, and legal texts. Our approval dataset relies on uniquely detailed information of individual housing development approvals. For example, we can analyze and compare how similar development (in terms of affordability or project characteristics) navigated approval processes within and across jurisdictions. Our interviews with stakeholders from various stakeholder groups in each study jurisdiction allowed us to gather different perspectives on each research question. In sum, we can provide a detailed picture of each study jurisdiction’s regulatory environment and offer some insight into which regulations most likely influence housing development outcomes
But there are some limitations to our data and the related analysis:
- We are sharing findings for specific cities in California that can’t be extrapolated to other jurisdictions.
- The data does not include denials—how and when jurisdictions deny proposals to build housing. It only examines projects that made it to entitlement, allowing us to understand the conditions jurisdictions impose and project approval delays, but not denials.
- The data doesn’t allow comparisons between timelines for discretionary and ministerial projects; we would need more data because ministerial projects end with a building permit, and discretionary projects end with the entitlement that happens prior to getting a building permit. (For recent work exploring the impact of ministerial processes on approval timeframes, check out UCLA’s Lewis Center’s recent brief examining the impact of the City of Los Angeles’ Transit Oriented Communities program on processing times. )
- The stakeholder interviewees for the qualitative portion of the data volunteered. Voluntary participation in interviews increases selection bias and limits the generalizability of findings from interviews, even within the study’s geographies.
- We didn’t study litigation of specific plans or general plans. According to some of the stakeholders we interviewed, litigation related to either could be an issue in California related to rezoning and/or planning efforts at a neighborhood or area level.
Land use regulations often use very technical language. So does the related research. We provide a general (but not exhaustive) glossary of terms here.
Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU): California's law defines ADUs as “an attached or a detached residential dwelling unit which provides complete independent living facilities for one or more persons” that is an accessory to an existing residential use on the parcel. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 65852.2. State law grants local governments authority to enact local laws to permit ADUs that comply with a set of criteria (addressing form) even within zoning districts that are limited to single-family dwellings. More significantly, it imposes a requirement on local governments to provide a streamlined development process for proposed ADUs that meet specified criteria. See Cal. Gov't Code § 65852.2(a)(3).
Administrative appeal: Refers to the local government administrative process by which a party can appeal a determination made by the local government in a discretionary review process. Unlike litigation, administrative appeals are not decided by a court, but rather by a local agency. For example, once a discretionary project is entitled, there may be a 30-day window for a member of the public or applicant to file for an appeal, which obligates the approval body to reevaluate the project and determine whether the permits shall be revoked or if the appeal shall be rejected. Projects can be appealed based on the decisions under local regulatory requirements or on CEQA determinations.
Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH): California Government Code § 8899.50 defines Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing as taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that: overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics; address significant disparities in housing needs and in access to opportunity; replace segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns; transform racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity; foster and maintain compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws. (For more information, see also “Do cities’ Housing Element sites Affirmatively Further Fair Housing? The AFFH Sites Score” Paavo Monkkonen et al., 2020.)
As-of-right/ministerial development: This is another term used to describe ministerial review processes, where a local government must approve a proposed development so long as it conforms to certain objective standards; environmental review is not applicable in as of right processes.
Base zoning: By “base zoning” we mean the underlying zoning district and use designations (residential, commercial, or industrial) provided for in the text of the ordinance and zoning map. Base zoning is distinguishable from process requirements. Cities can allow for an objective ministerial process (or “by-right” process) when proposed development conforms to the underlying base zoning district’s use and density requirements. Cities can also impose requirements for subjective discretionary review for categories of projects that are still built within the framework of the zoning ordinance—in other words, the zoning ordinance itself contemplates that at least some property owners would propose these projects, but they must meet a certain set of conditions to obtain one of these types of permits.
California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA): The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mandates environmental review for projects undergoing discretionary review. CEQA imposes notice and information requirements that involve documentation and public engagement processes around potential environmental impacts, and mitigation of potentially significant environmental impacts below a significant level where feasible. Projects must either complete a CEQA document, supplementary CEQA document or can be issued an exemption if the project fulfills certain criteria.
California Fair Housing Task Force Opportunity Mapping Methodology– The opportunity map classifications (referred to as TCAC classifications) and the methodology that supports them can be found on the state treasurer’s website. The methods consider several different indicators of opportunity including rates of poverty, adult educational achievement, employment rates, geographic proximity to jobs, median home values, environmental quality, math and reading proficiency levels, high school graduation rates, and student poverty.
Deed-restricted housing: Refers to housing where a deed restriction maintains affordability by setting income requirements for renters or by restricting the resale price.
Dense housing development: Development that proposes five or more residential units. This number is derived from state law, which uses the five-unit threshold to require more substantial review for the subdivision of parcels for development and defines “housing development” as “five or more residential units” in the state Density Bonus law (Cal. Gov’t. Code § 65915(i)).
Density Bonus: Density Bonus is a state provision that allows denser development in return for provision of affordable housing. See Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 65915–65918. Specifically, the incentive operates by allowing the developer a “density increase over the maximum allowable gross residential density” where the proposed new development provides for senior or affordable housing. See id. § 65915(f). It also operates to provide waivers from specific development standards (detailed within the local or state law—often referred to as “on menu”) in exchange for the developer providing specific types (and percentages) of senior housing or affordable housing.
Discretionary review: Discretionary review, or local discretion over land use, refers to a local government’s authority to impose subjective standards when deciding on whether to approve proposed development; environmental review applies to projects subjected to discretionary review.
Displacement: Varying definitions of displacement inform legal reform debates. We typically refer to four different definitions of displacement that are in the urban planning literature: (1) exclusionary displacement (the inability to move into a neighborhood because of reasons outside of a household’s control—like high housing costs); (2) direct physical displacement (eviction or demolition); (3) direct economic displacement (when price increases force an individual or a family’s departure from home); and (4) symbolic or cultural displacement (when transitions in the physical and social environment of gentrifying neighborhoods cause a once familiar place to become unfamiliar, resulting in long-term residents feeling politically/socially marginalized or unsafe). See Zuk et. al's 2015 "Gentrification, Displacement and the Role of Public Investment" here for more discussion on the various definitions of displacement.
Ellis Act eviction: In California, the Ellis Act permits a landlord to evict all the tenants in a building in order to withdraw the units from the rental market for sale or for conversion into condominiums. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 7060-7060.7. The Ellis Act prevents local governments from enacting ordinances that compel a landlord to stay in the rental business. See id. § 7060(a). Ellis Act evictions are commonly—but not exclusively—used to withdraw rent-stabilized units from the rental market because Rent Stabilization Ordinances (RSO) limit the circumstances under which a landlord may evict a tenant.
Entitlement: Refers to a final approval for a proposed development subject to discretionary review that precedes the application for a building permit. Entitlement typically requires a series of approvals and documentation to proceed to apply for a building permit application. Typically the first step towards constructing new development, the specific procedural steps and amount of time required to obtain such approval varies between jurisdictions, affecting whether and how much new development is likely to occur.
Environmental review: mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), projects undergoing discretionary review imposes notice and information requirements that involve documentation and public engagement processes around potential environmental impacts, and mitigation of potentially significant environmental impacts below a significant level where feasible. Projects must either complete a CEQA document, supplementary CEQA document or can be issued an exemption if the project fulfills certain criteria.
Environmental impact report (EIR): a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document created to inform stakeholders and community of the potential environmental impacts presented by a new project as well as possible mitigation strategies and substitutes for the project.
Exurbs: Areas lying beyond the suburbs of a major urban center where a significant portion of the population commute to work in an urbanized area and housing density is low.
Fire Hazard Severity Zone (FHSZ): These zones are defined by CalFire to describe the fire risk in each area in California. Broken into federal, state, and local responsibility areas, they are categorized as: Very High Fire Hazard, High Fire Hazard, Moderate Fire Hazard, and not categorized (not in a fire risk area).
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG emissions): The state legislature directed in 2006 that the CEQA guidelines mandate analysis of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from proposed projects (California Public Resources Code Section 21083.5). Several provisions of the CEQA guidelines provide for this analysis (14 California Code of Regulations Sections 15064.4, 15126.4(c), 15183.5,15364.5). The adequacy of CEQA GHG emissions analysis has been the subject of a significant body of caselaw in the state courts, indicating the potential for litigation based on the issue.
One key issue for GHG analysis under CEQA is the extent to which a project might increase automobile use for transportation, and therefore increase GHG emissions from gasoline-powered automobiles. CEQA guidelines used to mandate that CEQA analysis of the transportation impacts of a project focus on traffic congestion and level-of-service -- i.e., whether a project would cause increased delays and congestion for automobiles. This created an incentive for project proponents to increase the capacity for automobile use for a project in order to mitigate traffic impacts -- but this form of mitigation can increase automobile use.
Greenfield development: Development in exurban areas; often results in a low-density housing product.
High Quality Transit Area (HQTA): We define HQTA as referring to areas within ½ mile of major transit stop (MTS) or ¼ mile of a high-quality transit corridor (HQTC). MTS means a site containing an existing rail transit station, a ferry terminal served by either a bus or rail transit service, or the intersection of two or more major bus routes with a frequency of service interval of fifteen minutes or less during the morning and afternoon peak commute periods (Cal. Pub. Res. Code Sec. 21064.3). HQTC means a corridor with fixed route bus service with service intervals no longer than fifteen minutes during peak commute hours (Cal. Pub. Res. Code Sec. 21155(b)). We chose the ¼ mile buffer for the HQTC instead of the ½ mile buffer to be consistent with proposed state laws that would have allowed significant increases in allowable density near transit, like SB 827 and SB 50 (SB 50, Cal. Reg. Leg. Sess. 2019-2020 (2019); SB 827, Cal. Reg. Leg. Sess. 2017-2018 (2018)).
High Quality Transit Corridor (HQTC): HQTC means a corridor with fixed route bus service with service intervals no longer than fifteen minutes during peak commute hours (Cal. Pub. Res. Code Sec. 21155(b)). We chose the ¼ mile buffer for the HQTC instead of the ½ mile buffer to be consistent with proposed state laws that would have allowed significant increases in allowable density near transit, like SB 827 and SB 50 (SB 50, Cal. Reg. Leg. Sess. 2019-2020 (2019); SB 827, Cal. Reg. Leg. Sess. 2017-2018 (2018)).
Infill development: We use this term to describe housing development in cities that are within the urban core of strong economic regions.
Lead agency: In environmental review, the lead agency is the public body that gives final discretionary approval for the project.
Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA): As defined by the United States Census Bureau, “[t]he general concept of a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area is that of a core area containing a substantial population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core. Currently delineated metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas are based on application of 2010 standards (which appeared in the Federal Register on June 28, 2010) to 2010 Census and 2011-2015 American Community Survey data, as well as 2018 Population Estimates Program data. Current metropolitan and micropolitan statistical area delineations were announced by OMB effective March 2020.” For more information, see discussion at U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/metro-micro/about.html.
Mitigated negative declaration (MND): a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document created to inform stakeholders and community that the proposed project’s potential impacts to the environment can be mitigated by certain strategies and describes how the developer will implement these strategies.
Negative Declaration (ND): a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document created to inform stakeholders and community that the proposed project will not have a significant effect on the environment.
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates environmental review for all projects managed by federal agencies or sited on federal land. NEPA imposes notice and information requirements involving documentation around potential environmental impacts, and mitigation of potentially significant environmental impacts below a significant level where feasible. Projects must either complete a NEPA Environmental Assessment, Environmental Impact Statement, or can be issued a Categorical Exclusion if the project fulfills certain criteria. California provides a joint CEQA/NEPA process for some projects.
Permissive density: We define permissive density in relationship to base zoning as base zoning that allows for new residential or mixed-use development at a density that meets state default standards to accommodate all income levels. In urban cities, that default is 30 dwelling units or higher as a “permitted use” in the zone. We define “permitted use” as a use that does not trigger additional discretionary approvals aside from regulations already in place citywide.
Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA): RHNA is the total amount of housing a metropolitan area is required to plan for under state law in order to meet housing needs over the next planning cycle (usually eight years). Using Department of Finance (DOF) demographic data, the RHNA is determined by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Then the councils of governments (COGs) – in consultation with HCD – allocate the RHNA to their individual local governments.
Sprawl: Low-density residential and commercial development that occurs at the outer edges of urban areas. Sprawl can impose significant environmental and economic costs in the form of increased vehicle mileage, paving over agricultural or undeveloped land, placing greater strain on infrastructure and public services. Smart Growth America examined the impact of sprawl in its 2014 report, Measuring Sprawl 2014, available at https://smartgrowthamerica.org/resources/measuring-sprawl-2014/.
Streamlining: refers broadly to accelerating environmental review processes for proposed development on an individual project level. Streamlining can refer to “tiering” whereby cities can streamline or accelerate the environmental review process on the individual project level by developing an Environmental Impact Report for an area within the city where development is anticipated, from which individual projects can be ‘tiered,’ or to predetermined CEQA exemptions for classes and types of proposed development.
Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC): The California Tax Credit Allocation Committee administers the federal and state Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program. These are programs to promote private investment in affordable rental housing for low-income Californians. For more information, see California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (CTCAC), https://www.treasurer.ca.gov/ctcac/.
Tiering: We define “tiering” as the process by which cities can streamline or accelerate the environmental review process on the individual project level by developing an Environmental Impact Report for an area within the city where development is anticipated, from which individual projects can be ‘tiered’ to satisfy environmental review requirements, or qualify for predetermined CEQA exemptions for classes and types of proposed development.
Transit-oriented development (TOD): Development that takes place nearby public transit resources, often results in a medium or high-density housing product. The aim of transit-oriented development is to reduce car traffic and greenhouse gases while also creating neighborhoods that contain a variety of uses.
Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT): The state legislature in 2013 directed amendments of the CEQA guidelines to require the use of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to assess the transportation and GHG impacts of a proposed project (SB 743). Using VMT as the assessment of the impacts of a project encourages mitigation measures that decrease automobile use and therefore GHG emissions, and also can incentivize projects that are located in dense urban settings (projects that might otherwise increase traffic impacts). The CEQA guideline revisions were completed in 2018 (14 California Code of Regulations 15064.3).
Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index (WRLURI): This refers to a national land use survey developed in 2006 and reissued in 2018 that uses a survey instrument to measure regulatory restrictiveness. The findings from the WRLURI asses the “average” degree of land use regulation in the nation by focusing on process and outcomes, rather than just the presence of regulatory constraints (Joseph Gyourko, Albert Saiz, & Summers, 2008).
Zoned for all income levels: We refer here to areas within jurisdictions zoned to allow for what state law (Housing Element law) provides as a default to ensure density sufficient to accommodate all household income levels. Although not a complete representation of the feasibility of developing affordable housing in a given jurisdiction, the amount of land zoned for all income levels is a key indicator of whether a jurisdiction is creating or eliminating a fundamental regulatory barrier to affordable housing. The standard of 30 or more dwelling units per acre—applicable to our study cities—is derived from the Housing Element law, which set this as the default standard for density to allow for all income levels is 30 dwelling units per acre in urban jurisdictions. (Cal. Gov. Code Section 65852.2).