Los Angeles city and county officials have long been concerned about the health problems that could be caused by allowing developers to build residential housing within five hundred feet of a freeway. In 2019, the county’s public health department warned that the city should not allow housing, schools, or parks that could be used for moderate or vigorous exercise to be built closer than five hundred feet of existing freeways.

Furthermore, the advisory recommended that developers who were allowed to build housing between 500 and 1,500 feet of a freeway take measures to reduce indoor air pollution, including installing regularly maintained HVAC units and designing buildings to minimize exposure to emissions.

The Latest from the Department of Regional Planning

LA has, to a small degree, adhered to these recommendations. The county’s Department of Regional Planning recommends that housing be built at least 500 feet from freeways while mandating that any affordable housing developments funded by the Community Development Commission be built at least 500 feet from freeways. At the same time, the department states that it will continue to assess the impact of residential developments next to freeways from both a housing and health perspective.

This leaves the door open to future restrictions on residential development near freeways but does nothing to compel the city to force developers to find other, healthier areas for residential housing developments.

It is clear that the city is not putting a priority on preventing harmful traffic pollution in an effort to mitigate an ongoing crisis that seems to get worse with each passing year. However, it is unclear whether allowing residential construction near major highways is having a significant impact on creating housing for those who need it.

Factors Affecting Housing Funding

First, Los Angeles does not permit funding for affordable housing construction near freeways, which means the city’s allowance of other developments near its freeways is not helping socioeconomically challenged residents in a city that is well-known for its high rents and home prices. Even more importantly, the real reasons why Los Angeles has a housing crisis are not really mitigated by the city’s allowance of residential construction near freeways.

About three-quarters of all LA land zoned for residential use is zoned for single-family homes rather than multifamily housing units. In a city that has only limited land available for construction, zoning restrictions on their own could ensure that LA’s housing crisis never sees a satisfactory resolution. What’s more, the cost of construction materials and labor has risen exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for the city to use funds set aside for the construction of affordable housing to build anywhere near enough housing for the growing number of homeless individuals in the city.

What Should Be Priority?

Because Los Angeles has a limited land area, the city has to consider not only the health problems posed by building housing within 500 feet of a freeway but also the city’s real need for additional housing. At present, it seems like the latter is taking priority even though Los Angeles vowed, in times past, to restrict housing developments near freeways. While these restrictions, if they were imposed, would certainly make LA’s housing crisis worse, the impact would not be outsized because they would not affect the main reasons why Los Angeles has a housing crisis in the first place.

To alleviate the crisis for good, a drastic change in zoning laws would be required to enable developers to build more houses for those who need them. Lower construction costs would also be in order, so builders would not have to pass the high cost of developing and construction on to homeowners and tenants.