Our shared future rests in large part on what we do with the land beneath our feet. How we use it, and how we care for it. Now more than ever, we need data that helps us carefully make use of land to reduce sprawl and its resulting carbon emissions and wildfire damage, and to protect the forests, ecosystems, working lands, and water that we all depend on. And we need data that helps us make sure racism and classism no longer play a role in where people can live, work, and play.

The Partnership for Land Use Insights compiles and analyzes data on how local governments regulate land use to provide the actionable insights leaders need to achieve their goals—climate, equity, affordability, and more—for the land on which we live.

We share research and findings on specific topics related to active research projects below.

Featured Research:

Understanding Land Use Regulation and Housing Development in California through a Comprehensive Assessment of Land Use Entitlements

Background & Research Questions

Inadequate housing supply in our nation’s most expensive metro areas drives a housing crisis that challenges climate policy implementation, fair housing goals, and poverty reduction. Many scholars and policymakers agree that disincentivizing sprawl and increasing dense infill transit-oriented residential development (TOD) in high-cost metro areas could address this housing crisis while also mitigating the impacts of climate change. But increasing dense infill TOD in high-cost metro areas nationwide has proved challenging.

California’s high-cost metros are no exception. At least one set of questions that California’s communities, scholars, and policymakers grapple with revolves around how to best regulate land use to serve local and state public policy goals. We initiated our Comprehensive Analysis of Land Use Entitlements Study in California’s cities to explore questions including:

  1. How does existing regulation operate to allow or constrain dense residential development, generally?
  2. How does existing regulation operate to promote or constrain infill TOD, specifically?
  3. How does existing regulation operate to promote or constrain sprawl?
  4. How does existing land use regulation support or limit affordable development in different local contexts?
  5. What is the relative influence, if any, of state law and policy promoting TOD and local law regulating land use in generating inequitable outcomes like displacement in high-cost cities?
  6. Is opposition through administrative appeals or litigation common, and if so what types of claims dominate, and are they successful?

Zoning and process obstructs new multi-family housing near transit, contributing to California’s housing crisis.

Key Findings

Many cities have stated housing policy goals around affordability, equity, and climate. The housing approval data we collected indicates that the biggest barrier to realizing those policy goals is cities themselves: specifically, through zoning and process.

Density and use controls in zoning remain a core constraint on new multi-family housing.

Density and use controls in zoning regulate how property can be used, as well as the height, density, and spacing of buildings. Cities use this aspect of zoning to constrain or incentivize certain types of housing development.

Exclusionary zoning occurs when local governments employ land-use and building code requirements in a way that makes housing in certain neighborhoods unaffordable for lower-income people—disproportionately people of color—effectively excluding them from wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods. For example, zoning restricted to single-family homes on large lots with large minimum square footage tends to be exclusionary.

In over half of the studied cities, less than 10% of the land is zoned for multi-family housing across all income levels.

Roseville zoned 0.54% of its total zoned land area zoned for all income levels. At 42.39%, Inglewood has the most permissive base zoning of all of our study cities if measured as a percentage of all zoned land.

Zoning for all income levels that is also near high-quality transit ranged from Long Beach at 7% to Redwood City at 49%.

Thus, exclusionary zoning is still a major problem.

Even in places with more permissive density and use controls, process obstacles may disincentivize housing development.

Process barriers include approval timeframes and review processes—the process a jurisdiction’s requires development to go through to approve or deny a project.

There are two kinds of review processes: ministerial and discretionary. For ministerial approvals, a government agency simply applies the law. Ministerial review provides more certainty in the approval process. Discretionary review allows the government agency to impose conditions of approval and modify the proposed development even where the proposal to develop otherwise conforms to local regulation, which can impose uncertainty in the approval process.

Cities that have attempted to fix their zoning issues have process obstacles that can prevent multi-family housing. We found that most dense development in all 20 of the places we studied is subject discretionary review, where the jurisdiction has the power to impose conditions of approval on some development, and outright reject some proposals for subjective reasons. This creates a range of obstacles for dense housing even in areas designated for dense development, and even for development that conforms to what local regulation requires.

Across all jurisdictions, most development required less intensive environmental review—evaluating the proposed project’s estimated impact on the environment—with no consistent or substantial difference between infill and exurban development in terms of environmental review pathways. This does not mean that all less intensive environmental review processes move quickly. Instead, the amount of time a city takes to complete the same environmental review process appears to vary across jurisdictions—not project type.

For example, San Francisco, by far, has the longest timeframe to approvals. The median timeframe to approval within San Francisco is nearly 27 months, 8 months longer than the next longest median approval timeframe in Palo Alto.

San Francisco’s timeframes represent an outlier not just within the group of cities in that metropolitan region, which had median timeframes ranging from ~5 months (Oakland) to ~19 months (Palo Alto), but also across all of our study cities.

The difference between timeframes in neighboring urban cities that use identical environmental review processes for similar housing developments were extreme; this variability in the way local governments apply regulation can create uncertainty for developers.

Also notable, infill development approval timelines were longer within urban cities relative to exurban areas in San Diego County and Los Angeles County.

Explore our findings in more detail by topic: