Examining the Local Land Use Entitlement Process in California to Inform Policy and Process

Published: 2018 | Moira O’Neill, Giulia Gualco-Nelson, Eric Biber


As California’s housing affordability crisis persists, an important question raised is: What laws or regulations might impede housing construction in high-cost areas? To help answer this question, we focused on the entitlement process (or the process that property owners move through to get a building permit) within selected cities across the state. We analyzed the law applicable to residential development projects, including the local zoning ordinances, and interviewed important actors in the residential development process in our selected cities. We also collected data on all residential development projects of five or more units over a three-year period within each city we studied. In this paper we focus on what we have learned within the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, and Santa Monica. We found that across these four cities, only Los Angeles provides for as of right development for five or more units up to a 49-unit threshold. In the other three cities, residential development of five or more units must undergo discretionary review—and by extension, environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act—before obtaining a building permit. All four cities impose discretionary review through diverse approval mechanisms. Application of CEQA also varies; however, on balance these jurisdictions are requiring few Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs).