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A big debate over small lot homes

New rules may rein in the look and size of "small lot subdivisions" in Los Angeles, the clusters of detached townhouses that have multiplied around the city in the last 10 years.

Often modern-looking and boxy, the developments are targeted by activists in neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Echo Park and Venice for being too bulky and out-of-character with older, nearby homes. In response, city planners are proposing changes to the city zoning code, among them that developments be set back farther from the street, and follow design standards aimed at making them look less massive.

Developments with 20 or more small homes could be subject to more requirements. Jae Kim, a zoning administrator with the city's planning department, said the city wants those developers to offer up more features for residents.

"If you're going to build much larger ones, then give us something back," said Kim. "Give us some guest parking spaces. Give us some open space and some bike racks."

To gather public input on the proposed changes, the city will be holding a series of hearings starting Wednesday in West L.A. Other meetings are scheduled for Jan. 26 in Echo Park and Feb. 17 in Van Nuys. 

Nearly 2,500 of these homes have been built in Los Angeles since the city council created its small lot ordinance in 2005 to incentivize developers to build more housing and to boost home ownership.

The law allowed developers to erect single-family homes on as little as 600 square feet, just inches apart from one another, and it relaxed parking restrictions that apartment and condominium buildings have to abide by.

But the city's drive to promote small lot development has disrupted neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, said Anne Hars, a local artist and activist with Coronado Street Citizens Coalition.

The coalition of neighbors has worked to oppose a Coronado Street small lot development that has displaced tenants in rent-stabilized housing.

"We lose the flavor of the neighborhood, we lose the people who live here, and we get these generic cookie-cutter designs," Hars said.

Hars said the tenants have since moved away because of the impending project. The developer, Urban Blox, did not respond to a request for an interview.

While small lot developments can be more affordable than single-family homes, Hars said they are not helping the city's affordable housing crisis. To make way for small lots, landowners are invoking the state Ellis Act, which allows them to evict tenants as long as they are getting out of the rental business.

Councilmembers such as Mike Bonin and Mitch O'Farrell said they shared neighbors' concerns and last summer introduced a motion to update the small lot ordinance and make sure guidelines are enforced.

But developers such as Mott Smith point out that small lot homes are filling an important void for first-time homebuyers who want to live in an urban, walkable neighborhood.

"It's a great way of addressing entry-level housing in a lot of neighborhoods where even fairly affluent people can't afford to buy homes anymore," said Smith, a board member and spokesman for the Council of Infill Builders.

Smith said he is generally open to the city's proposed changes to the small lot ordinance and is awaiting more details.  Ideas include:

  • Homes be set back 15 feet from the street, and 15 feet from the rear if the back property abuts a single-family home
  • Design standards to reduce the oversized feel of homes with features such as pitched roofs
  • Making larger small lot developments provide new parking and open space
  • Promoting the preservation of existing bungalows by making it easier to convert them into single lot homes