Health, Housing, and Highways

L.A. County's Gordian Knot

 

This spring, the Los Angeles Times published an exhaustive analysis of the prevalence in the city of Los Angeles of new housing being constructed within 1,000 feet of freeways. Times journalists found that 2.5 million Southern California residents already live within this area and that freeway-adjacent residential developments continue to be permitted, even though state regulators have issued warnings about elevated pollution levels and health risks in this area for over a decade. In late 2012, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission began issuing Freeway Adjacent Advisory Notifications to developers for project sites located within 1,000 feet of a freeway. Although these notifications indicate that building housing near freeways may have potential “public health implications” for especially vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and the chronically ill, they contain only a suite of recommendations to “reduc[e] exposure through project design.” The notifications do not require any mandatory action on the part of the developers.

Times journalists uncovered this story by compiling data from a variety of publicly-available sources, including a database of city building permits and population data from the federal census. The authors examined over 19,000 permits issued by the city of Los Angeles from 2005, when the California Air Resources Board initially made public its findings of elevated risk for pollution-related illnesses, and 2016, the most recent full year for which data was available. The writers then flagged the permitted projects within the 1,000 foot zone, allowing them to determine that the city was approving more units adjacent to freeways, even once it began issuing advisory notifications to developers. In order to determine how many people fell within the “pollution zone,” Times journalists relied on census block data from the federal census. Census blocks are the smallest unit used to measure demographic and population data by the Census Bureau, and block data is updated every 10 years. The Times looked at blocks adjacent to freeways, and estimated the proportion of the population that fell within 500 feet and 1,000 feet of a freeway in each census block.

With the cost of living rising rapidly, public officials have been hesitant to undertake any measures that might make it harder to build new housing, even if that housing is located in areas polluted by freeways. However, since the Times investigation revealed Los Angeles’ increasing reliance on freeway-adjacent development, the City Council has been pressured to take action. While the City has required that housing developments within 1,000 feet of freeways be constructed with high quality air filtration systems since 2015, Councilmember Jose Huizar has suggested that the city should be taking a more active stance to protect the health of residents. Streetsblog LA noted that only focusing on air filtration does nothing to address the potential impact of pollution on those, including school-aged children, who spend a significant portion of their day outside.

Following the Times report, Councilmember Huizar introduced a motion for staff to study the current mechanisms that the city has in place to protect Angelenos who live in buildings near highways, and to report on potential “strategies to address the hazard of freeway pollution.” City officials must work to achieve competing aims in order to slow down rising rents and ensure that new developments do not expose residents to dangerous levels of pollutants. The data collected by the Times provides a blueprint for directing the City’s new housing development toward neighborhoods further from existing freeways. If Councilmember Huizar’s motion leads to the development of a more thorough review process for freeway-adjacent housing while identifying measures that could make it easier to build housing elsewhere, it could significantly improve the health outcomes of Angelenos across the city.