Zoning Bigots

A Los Angeles County land use war shows the dark history and darker future of urban planning.


“Blacks,” Baltimore’s progressive mayor J. Barry Mahool said in 1910, “should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” Mahool was not just sowing some of the seeds of the race hatred that bloomed in Charm City throughout the 20th century. He was also laying out the logic of planning and zoning that applies to the present day. The zoning ordinance Mahool stumped for in 1910 became a model for New York City’s landmark 1916 Zoning Resolution, which established the international habit of imposing “setback” requirements for tall buildings and limiting height based on lot size. 

In a June New York Times op-ed piece, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen applauded the Big Apple’s zoning resolution, which in its current form is 3,411 pages long and includes detailed prescriptions for the operation of cotton gins, tight restrictions on placement of “tot-lots,” and 4,351 instances of the word permit. (If you placed all those permits end to end, you would get four articles as long as the one you’re reading.) Goldhagen views this unwieldy document as a victory for “urban dwellers” who “realized that developers…would never reliably serve the public interest.” She believes this leap forward in urban planning created vibrant contemporary cities, despite occasional reversals when “populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands.” And she hopes to head off future episodes of revanchism by empowering “design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions.”

An architecture critic would need to be pretty sheltered to claim, in a city where only bazillionaire developers have the legal muscle to build so much as a roof on a porch, that the problem is an underdeveloped regulatory apparatus. But at least nobody moves to New York so he can live large in wide-open spaces. For that you move out west. Or used to.

Northeast Los Angeles County is a flat desert of cacti and tumbleweeds that easily stands in for Texas and Mexico in Hollywood movies. The Antelope Valley is populated in significant part by truckers, retirees, and mavericks who move there specifically to get away from urban busybodies. Their lifestyle choicesâ€"including septic tanks, self-generated power, self-built homes, and usually a few old vehicles on the lotâ€"would probably displease neighbors “trained in aesthetics and urban issues,” but for the most part they have no neighbors. At some Antelope Valley residences you can do a 360-degree turn around the property without seeing a single other person or building.

That has not stopped big government from kicking people out of their homes. Since 2006 Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been dispatching “nuisance abatement teams,” consisting of officers from various city and county agencies along with sheriff’s deputies, to conduct armed raids against property owners whose residences fail to meet paperwork requirements. Although some of these raids target “eyesores,” for the most part they are for permit problems only, with no claims of safety violations, fire hazards, or anything else that could be called a compelling public interest.

L.A. County’s Planning and Zoning Code isn’t quite the size of New York’s, but it is more than 438,000 words long and prints out at 1,300 pages. It provides more than enough discouragement to any property owner without top-notch lawyers and more than enough ammunition for the county to harass and remove property owners who don’t fit into the New Urbanist vision of L.A. as something it never was: a swanky, high-density, transit-centered city with a vital downtown.

You could make a decent case that the campaign to harass and remove property owners is no less bigoted than Mayor Mahool’s quarantine proposal. Although blacks, whites, and Latinos have all been targeted for nuisance abatement raids, these folks share one characteristic: They don’t meet the standards of respectability set by the political class and large urban landowners. In some cases the county’s lifestyle demands shade into bias on religious grounds. Oscar Castaneda, a mechanic and Seventh Day Adventist minister who was ordered to tear down his entire property, lives in the high desert because his faith impels him to a rural, self-sufficient life.

Los Angeles zoning practice is bigoted in other ways that are often overt. A city (not county) ordinance preventing residents from keeping more than one rooster on a property is clearly aimed at Latino homeowners. A maze of restrictions on convenience stores and fast food joints applies in South L.A. but not in tonier areas. During the jihad against “McMansions” a few years ago, the popular term for large properties was “Persian Palaces”â€"a swipe at L.A.’s Iranian-American community.

“There’s definitely an attempt to squeeze out of Angelenos the very things that make them Angelenos and not New Yorkers or Bostonians,” says Chapman University urban theorist Joel Kotkin. “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.” 

Or to live somewhere else. Many of the Antelope Valley homeowners we spoke with for a recent reason.tv report have given up the struggle and are planning to leave California. What Antonovich (who refused requests for an interview) has in mind for their vacated properties is not clear. Educated guesses include a plan for massive wind-power generation and a scheme to turn the half-horse town of Palmdale into a high-density, smart-growth hub for the California high-speed rail project. If you know Palmdale you know that the notion of turning it into a hipster paradise would be funnyâ€"except that this pipe dream is destroying the lives of real people. They’re just not the right sort of people.  

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at reason.

Bonus Reason.tv video: "Battle for the California Desert: Why Is the Government Driving Folks Off Their Land?"