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Zone Laws Key Issue at Conference : Affordable Housing Linked to Easing Some Restrictions

April 07, 1985|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — "A city without zoning is like a fish without a bicycle."

Dick Bjornseth, a Houston planner, said it, but then Houston is what Bjornseth affectionately calls "the nation's only test lab for zoning" or, more appropriately, lack of zoning.

Even so, zoning was the key issue at a 1 1/2-day conference that Bjornseth addressed. It was an affordable-housing conference held in one of the most unlikely places: La Jolla, where home prices are among the highest in the United States.

Sponsored by the National Assn. of Home Builders, University of San Diego School of Law and Home Owners Warranty Corp. on the La Jolla campus of the UC San Diego, the conference, attended by about 50 people, was titled "Affordable Housing for the '80s: A Conflict of Rights."

However, it focused primarily on one item in the report of President Reagan's Commission on Housing: the commission's recommendation that zoning regulations limiting the development of housing be eliminated "unless their existence or adoption is necessary to achieve a vital and pressing governmental interest."

Link to Regulations

Sentiments among housing experts assembled at the conference from across the nation ran for and against the controversial recommendation, but a link was confirmed, nonetheless, between affordable housing and governmental regulations, even by Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

As the luncheon speaker, Pierce said, "Agreement is growing that over-regulation of home building drives up costs unnecessarily, and that regulatory requirements should be limited."

He spoke of a national joint-venture program in which his agency works with local governments to show that the cost of well designed, attractive housing can be reduced without affecting safety or quality by simply making minor changes in local regulations and speeding up processing time. "To date," he explained, "we're proving that this approach works in 39 separate projects in 33 states."

At a press conference following the luncheon, he added, "We hope to get into all 50 states by the end of this year."

The Government National Mortgage Assn. (Ginnie Mae) has expanded its sales of mortgage-backed securities to overseas markets--"tapping the global money market to help finance American housing," he said, and he has been working to encourage greater investment in mortgages by America's pension funds.

Defines Affordability

However, he charges local government with the main responsibility for providing affordable housing, which Peter Herder, 1984 president of the National Assn. of Home Builders, defined as being three times the median, family income of a community.

Said Pierce:

"Simply put, it has become apparent that local policies define the kind of housing--and the cost of housing--that will be built in any community. Local governments are directly responsible for the regulations that account for a significant portion of the cost of new housing.

"And, by limiting possibilities for new housing construction, those same regulations force up the prices of existing housing as well."

The conflict of rights, mentioned in the title of the conference, may arise when changes in local building regulations are proposed.

For example, Pierce asked: "Do changes in home-building regulation--specifically, limited on what we recognize as over-regulation--interfere with anyone's rights? Will existing homeowners be adversely affected by the limitation of some regulations? Will the broader public welfare be imperiled? And lastly, can or should the federal government tell communities what regulations they should or should not impose?"

Local Jurisdiction

Pierce sees none of the conflicts as being so great "as to be beyond resolution" but yields to the courts and local jurisdictions for remedies. "It is inappropriate," he stressed, "for Washington to tell communities what standards they should or should not impose on home building."

In this, Pierce was merely echoing the Commission on Housing, which was created, Pierce noted, at his suggestion. The commission recommended that local governments bear the burden of justifying their zoning regulations, but it also urged state and local legislatures to enact legislation invalidating zoning regulations except those meeting the vital and pressing standard.

During the conference, Douglas Kmiec, a University of Notre Dame law professor, described a model statute that he drafted according to the commission's recommendation, and Norman Karlin, a Southwestern University law professor who also supports the commission's recommendation, likened the right to build to other constitutional protections. "If you have a right to speak, you should have a right to build," he said.

Building Limits

Karlin also criticized a zoning measure adopted by the Los Angeles City Council last week that would impose strict new limits on the quantity and size of future construction projects and would drive up bulding costs.

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