While California continues to struggle with a growing housing shortage, cities across the state have an untapped resource that could be providing hundreds of affordable units for both low and moderate-income Californians: underutilized and vacant commercial spaces.
More than 25% of the 191,000 acres of commercially-zoned land in greater Los Angeles is currently vacant. Many of these commercially-zoned parcels are ideal locations for affordable housing in areas near public transit, jobs, and services. Elected officials simply need to remove obstacles to getting critically needed housing built where space is readily available and it makes the most sense.
The need to build exponentially more housing in the LA region and across the state is undeniable. California’s 2022 Statewide Housing Plan estimates that we need to build approximately 2.5 million units of housing over the next eight years to overcome our housing shortage, including over one million units affordable to lower-income households. Los Angeles County alone requires more than 800,000 new units before 2030 in order to meet demand. We are nowhere close to meeting that goal and inaction will mean more Angelenos will struggle to pay skyrocketing rent, more families priced out of homeownership, and the homelessness crisis will worsen.
While California’s housing crisis has been difficult for many, the impact has not been felt equally–communities of color have been disproportionately hurt by the lack of affordable housing. Nearly two-thirds of Black households in the state pay more than 30% of their income on housing, compared to under half of white households, and households of color were more likely to miss a rent payment during the pandemic. While Black Angelos make up only 8% of the population, they represent 34% of people experiencing homelessness in LA County.
This month, California Assembly Members will vote on AB 2011, a bill that will make it faster and easier to build affordable and mixed-income housing projects in underutilized commercial areas if they meet objective planning and zoning code standards as well as specific affordability, labor, and environmental criteria. Housing that is 100% affordable to lower-income households will be allowed anywhere in infill areas currently zoned for office, retail, and parking use as long as they are not adjacent to industrial or environmentally sensitive land. Mixed income housing will be eligible if it is focused along commercial corridors that are wide enough to accommodate density and new transit and include 15% affordable units.
And because the new housing would occur only in infill areas zoned for commercial use, this policy will add thousands of units of affordable housing to the market without impacting or increasing density in existing residential neighborhoods.
AB 2011 will also require that this housing development is paired with a range of responsible wage and training standards– enabling us to build affordable and market rate housing while supporting valuable construction jobs that guarantee high wages and health care benefits.
Policies such as these, that support affordable housing development and a thriving, well-paid, middle-class construction workforce, can make a lifetime–even generations–of difference for low-income and communities of color, allowing them to provide for their families and save for the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated our state’s extreme housing affordability and homelessness crisis, but it also inspired leaders and communities across the state to think creatively about how to protect Californian’s who are struggling to make ends meet. AB 2011 reflects a similar willingness to use new approaches to address seemingly entrenched problems.
By making it easier to convert thousands of square feet of vacant and underutilized commercial land into desperately needed lower-cost housing, state legislators can demonstrate they are committed to making California more affordable for all.
Roberto Barragan is executive director of the California Community Economic Development Association (CCEDA). CCEDA comprises organizations actively engaged in revitalizing California’s neighborhoods, including resident-driven community development corporations, local governments, community action agencies, and faith-based institutions.