Building Height is one of the main variables that zoning codes control. Building Height is a key factor in the planning and design of any building. It is always one of the first things I look at when considering the development potential of a site.
The height of the buildings in a neighborhood has a huge overall impact on the living environment. Compare smaller scale shopping developments like Westwood Village and Palisades Village, with larger scale shopping developments like Century City Mall or the Beverly Center and you can quickly see the difference. One experience is more intimate and one on one, while the other is much larger with open public space.
Los Angeles, for the most part, is spread out wide and low, with the average building height being 1 or 2 stories. If you got to Manhattan in New York there are plenty of tall buildings there. In LA, Downtown neighborhoods like Downtown Los Angeles, Downtown Brentwood, Downtown Hollywood, Downtown Long Beach, and Downtown Glendale – there are a few tall buildings.
Why are there so few tall buildings in Los Angeles? There are two reasons- 1) California has seismic activity (you don’t want to build a tall building on top of an earthquake fault!) and 2) Land in Los Angeles use to be cheap. Not so much anymore! In the past, it was easier to keep building outwards rather than upwards.
How is Max building Height and the Number of Stories related?
The maximum height is the tallest you can build a structure. It does not inform you as to the number of stories. As a builder or developer, you can choose to make the new building as many or as few stories as you like so long as each floor meets the minimum ceiling height requirements for its intended use.
For example, say you have a lot with a MAX Height of 45 feet, you could choose to build 1, 2, or 3 stories. The minimum ceiling height is 8 Feet for habitable spaces, and when you add a few feet for the subfloors and ceilings of each floor, height is usually about 12-14 feet per floor, so a 45 ft height limit would be at most a 3 story building. In theory, you could have a single story with 45 foot high ceilings, but many people would consider that a waste of space.
Reading the Los Angeles Building Code for Max Height:
There are four different parts of Los Angeles building code you need to understand to figure out the maximum building height: Zone (Residential Zones/ Commercial Zones) the Height District (1, 2, 3, 4) Special Height Districts (L, VL, XL) and Specific Plans (Baseline Hillside Ordinance, Mulholland Scenic Corridor).
Special Height District
Not sure if you got it right? When in doubt, make a trip down to your local building department and talk with someone from the Zoning Dept.
The zoning is the first thing to check. Each zone gives you the base Max Height which some of the other factors might modify.
Here is a table of Max base Heights for Residential Zones:
Here is the table for Max height for Commercial Zones:
Yes, that’s right- Commercial Zones have no max height. However, they do have a maximum FAR (Floor Area Ratio) which will limit the maximum height indirectly. Let’s use a basic example- let’s say you have a made-up commercial 4,000 sqft Lot with no height limit and a 1x FAR. You can build a 4,000 Sqft building. How you choose to lay it out is up to you. You Could make a single story 100% lot coverage building, a 50% lot coverage 2 story building, or a 25% lot coverage 4 story building. Or anything in between.
It is very common to see “C” zones that have added Height Modifiers that impose a Maximum Height Limit and scale down the FAR. FAR ratios of 6-13 are Massive!
Height districts alter the maximum building Height AND FAR of a zone. Height Districts are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4. Height District 1 is the lowest height district, while 4 is the highest. If the Height District is 1 then the Max Height is the same as the basic zone.
Los Angeles Height District Map
As you can see from the Map above most properties in Los Angeles are in Height District 1 (I’d guess about 95%). You will usually only run into Height Districts 2-4 on Commercial parcels or Higher density R zones like R3 and R4. Since these Height Districts are already 75 feet or unlimited the Higher district pretty much just modifies the FAR. Quick note, Residential and Commercial Lots buildable area is calculated very differently. Residential has front back and side yard setbacks, while commercial properties do not.
Let’s look at a residential example. Let’s say you have a 6,750 sqft lot that is zoned R4-2. Lot dimensions 50 x 135. Let’s say 15-yard setback for the front, 5 feet set back sideyards, and 10 feet in the back. Buildable Area is 3,125 sqft
In this example, The 2 height district increases the FAR to 6x so you can build 18,750 sqft instead of 9,375 sqft that you could normally build in R4 zone Height district 1. The increase in height district in this example doubled the building size!
Special Heights Districts:
While Height Districts increase the building size and height, Special Height Districts Decrease it.
There are several different Special Height District codes (L, VL, XL, SS)
If you see a dash and L, VL, XL, or SS after the zone and height district this indicates the parcel is in a special height district.
For R1, if you see R1-L, or R1-VL, or R1-XL this means that even though R1 Zone is
Lets take an example so you can see how this can change things.
Let’s suppose you have an R2-1XL Zone Lot. For the R2 Zone the Max Height is 33 feet. However for R1-1XL the max height is now reduced to 30 Feet.
The Cities Zoning code has all sorts of zoning overlays. If a parcel is in one of these special zones then that will alter the Height.
-Overlay Zones: HPOZ, Baseline Hillside Ordinance, Coastal Zone
-Community Specific Plans
-General Plan footnotes
Baseline Hillside Ordinance
§ LAMC Section 12.21C.10-4
USING ZIMAS to Look Up Zoning
What is the heck is Zimas? Zimas is an acronym for “Zone Information and Map Access System”. Pretty boring name if you ask me, but I like Zimas (reminds me of the clear vodka like drink from the nineties). You will hear a lot of planners at the zoning counter talking about Zimas- they spend most of the day on the website.
Zimas is the first place you want to check to determine the property’s Height Limits:
Type in your address and open up the “Planning and Zoning Tab”
The Zoning Tab contains all the properties zoning information. Don’t be intimidated by the huge drop down menu, most of the fields are blank for most parcels.
One feature I love about Zimas is that the Zoning Information is linked to the related zoning documents. Any field that is a “No” or “None” you don’t care about.
In the example above the Property :1720 Winmar- is an “RS” Zone, and it has modifications “ZI-2462”, and it is in an Enterprise zone ZI-2129. Since this is a residential property and enterprise zones deal with commercial properties this doesn’t have any affect. You can also see there is a General Plan Footnote, good to check that also. The big one here, is that it is in a hillside zone, which means it falls under the baseline hillside zoning ordnance. That is going to change the rules for max height dramatically.
Los Angeles is getting more expensive every day and rents are high. In addition, the weather is great year-round so many homeowners don’t use their garages to park their cars, they park them on the driveway. These conditions give homeowners a strong incentive to ‘illegally’ convert their garage, attic, or other rooms in their house into a dwelling unit to use as a rental for extra income. If your home is located in an R1 zone, a second dwelling unit is an illegal use of the property. Many homeowners will rent their illegal rental for years with no problems, but it only takes one bad tenant, or an upset neighbor to make your life a living hell and make you want to never rent again!
That is because, with Los Angeles Rent Control, there comes a ton of liability to you the owner when renting an illegal rental unit. For apartment building owners in R1.5-R4 zones- illegal rental units are often called ‘nonconforming units‘.
Dwelling Unit– A group of two or more rooms, one of which is a kitchen, designed for occupancy by one family for living and sleeping purposes.
R1 – “One Family” Zone
Kitchen – Any portion of an accessory building arranged for or conducive to the preparation
or cooking of food, by the inclusion of one or more of the following items shall be considered as
• Natural gas outlet.
• 220 AC electrical outlet.
• Double sink.
• Bar sink exceeding one square foot.
• Hot water line to any bar sink.
• Refrigerator exceeding 10 cubic feet (or a place designed for it).
• Garbage disposal.
• Dishwasher (or space designed for it).
• Any device designed for cooking or heating of food.
• Total counter space exceeding 10 square feet.
The key word in the definition of Dwelling unit is kitchen. The city looks at having an extra kitchen as showing that a second family intends to live on the property. If the property is RD1.5, R2, R3, R4 zones, they allow multiple families to live on one lot. Even in some instances of Residential Estate zoning such as RE20, RE40 while not allowing a kitchen, will allow a Guest House and accessory living quarters building for lots over 20,000 sqft in size. But not on R1 lots. These are residential lots that only allow one family to live on the lot.
Owners who use their illegal unit as a guest house for visiting friends and family don’t have as much to worry about- the worst that can happen is that the Los Angeles building department will demand they remove the kitchen, and you are only out the installation + removal cost of the kitchen + any fines.
For Owners using their illegal rental units to rent to tenants they must be very careful who they rent to, because these units can carry with them huge liability if the Los Angeles housing department finds out.
How does the city find out that you have an illegal rental unit?
-Your Tenant or a neighbor complains
-A building Inspector spots it
There are two enforcement arms of the city- the Building Department, and the Housing Department. You don’t want either to cite you. The worst of the two by far is the Housing Department- they oversee Rent Control and have a patent tenant bias. Everyone who works there is a tenant, and they think all landlords are evil. You may be surprised to find out when you call LAHD with questions, that you will get sent around and around in circles with your questions because the people on the phone don’t know the answers, or you might get a different answers from each person you talk to. Basically as far as they are concerned the tenant is always right.
Building Department Enforcement
If the Building Department cites you they will issue you a notice to comply. You will have 3 choices: Legalize the unit, Demolition it, or revert to previous use. Since we know there is no way to legalize a second dwelling unit in a R1 zone (aside from going for a full blown variance which is practically impossible- but I have seen it successfully accomplished a few times), that option is off the table. If the structure that was converted was permitted when it was built you don’t have to worry about demolition. The Certificate of Occupancy for the structure will show what is the structure’s permitted use. Expect to see something like: Rec Room, Rumpus Room (obs), Play Room (obs), Storage Room, Accessory Living Quarters, Garage, Guest House, Guest Room etc.
None of these permitted uses allow a kitchen. Only dwelling units allow a kitchen. The city will order you to remove the kitchen and return the structure to its permitted use. This can be a real drag if you just spent $15,000 on putting in a brand new kitchen just to turn around and have to rip it all out.
Housing Department Enforcement
As I said earlier, you really don’t want to deal with the Los Angeles Housing Department. If you are in the Countyof Los Angeles and not the city, there is no rent control so its not really a big deal. If you are in the city of LA, watch out!!
Los Angeles City Boundary Map, Tan Color is the City of Los Angeles, White areas are separate municipalities (West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica etc) or the county
The risk from the housing department is that they make you pay back the tenant all the rent that you collected, plus pay the tenant a relocation fee. In addition to this risk, you will probably have some legal fees when you get a lawyer involved (~$5,000 for a settlement, ~$20,000 for a trail).
Look to the Definitions section in the code for the definition of a rental unit:
SEC. 151.02. DEFINITIONS.
Rental Units. (Amended by Ord. No. 157,385, Eff. 1/24/83.) All dwelling units, efficiency dwelling units, guest rooms, and suites, as defined in Section 12.03 of this Code, and all housing accommodations as defined in Government Code Section 12927, and duplexes and condominiums in the City of Los Angeles, rented or offered for rent for living or dwelling purposes, the land and buildings appurtenant thereto, and all housing services, privileges, furnishings and facilities supplied in connection with the use or occupancy thereof, including garage and parking facilities. (Sentence Amended by Ord. No. 170,445, Eff. 5/6/95, Oper. 7/5/95.) This term shall also include mobile homes, whether rent is paid for the mobile home and the land upon which the mobile home is located, or rent is paid for the land alone. Further, it shall include recreational vehicles, as defined in California Civil Code Section 799.29 if located in a mobile home park or recreational vehicle park, whether rent is paid for the recreational vehicle and the land upon which it is located, or rent is paid for the land alone. (Sentence Amended by Ord. No. 181,744, Eff. 7/15/11.) The term shall not include:
1. Dwellings, one family, except where two or more dwelling units are located on the same lot. This exception shall not apply to duplexes or condominiums. (Amended by Ord. No. 170,445, Eff. 5/6/95, Oper. 7/5/95.)
6. Housing accommodations, located in a structure for which the first Certificate of Occupancy was issued after October 1, 1978, are exempt from provisions of this Chapter. If the property was occupied for residential purposes prior to October 1, 1978 and a Certificate of Occupancy for the subject building was never issued or was not issued until after October 1, 1978, the housing accommodation shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter if relevant documentation, such as a building permit, establishes that the building was first occupied for residential purposes prior to October 1, 1978. This exception shall not apply to individual mobile home coaches, mobile home parks, individual recreational vehicles or recreational vehicle parks. (Amended by Ord. No. 181,744, Eff. 7/15/11.)
If you are renting a converted Garage you
Sec 151.09 Evictions
“If termination of the tenancy is based on the grounds set forth in Section 151.09 A.11. of this Code, and the subject property has an approved use as a single-family home and the structure containing the single-family home contains two rental units, the landlord shall pay a relocation fee in accordance with Section 151.09 G. of this Code to the tenant(s) of the affected rental unit(s) within 15 days of receiving notice from the tenant(s) of their intention to terminate the tenancy.”
That means that the tenant in your illegal unit has all the protections of rent control the tenant calls LAHD and reports that you are renting to them and its an illegal unit a few things will happen. First, the tenant may start sending the rent directly to LAHD instead of you. This will continue until the tenant leaves- it is important to note that the tenant must still keep paying rent, and this rent will be given to you by LAHD once the tenant has left.
The next big obstacle is if the tenant decides to hire an attorney. You will probably end up having to settle with the tenant for $15,000 – $20,000 to get them out.
Otherwise, under rent control tenants of illegal rent control units are entitled to RELOCATION ASSISTANCE. Legal Reason # 11 for eviction applies to this situation, and relocation assistance is required.
The Tenant is considered Qualified if they are 62 or older, Handicap, or have a minor child under the age of 18. Eligible tenants are everyone else. Relocation is $18,000 for Qualified, and $9,000 for eligible.
As a landlord of an illegal rental unit, you can lower your risk by only renting to eligible tenants, and only rent to people who are close friends that you know very well. It has a lot of risks- so I would recommend avoiding it if possible.
If you need help turning your illegal unit into an ADU try this company:
Sometimes you will see Los Angeles Income Properties listed for sale that advertises having “non-conforming unit(s)”.
Investors often ask me, what is a non-conforming unit? Non-Conforming is a very nice way of saying that the rental unit is illegal and that the number of actual rental units for the apartment building is more than the number of permitted units according to the property’s Certificate of Occupancy.
Take for example the property above, 1415 Rexford Drive. It has only (1) Certificate of Occupancy recorded with the city of Los Angeles and that CofO says it’s a legal 10 unit apartment building.
1415 Rexford Drive Certificate of Occupancy
The Los Angeles Building Department has quite a few of their permits online. The online records go back to about 1970, so if the year built is before then you can usually find the building permtis online here with that link. If you are dealing with an older property, the Certificate of Occupancy for a property can be obtained the same day in person at the Records Department at one of LABDS office Locations.
Downtown LABDS Records Counter
Be forewarned that pulling permits will take you half a day and there will be a small printing fee. Also if you go to the downtown location, parking is annoying. The meters are almost always full. If you are ok walking a bit and don’t mind the homeless people that usually are under the bridge, I find the meters under the bridge on W 1st usually have a few available. Or you can pay $10 or $20 buck for parking in the building on Fremont which I do on occasion. If you can wait 3-5 days, it is much easier to order a permit report for $60 online. Another place to check is both the assessor website parcel viewer or the city zoning website. For Zoning website goto http://www.zimas.lacity.org/ and follow these three steps:
STEP 1: Type in Property Address and Click Go
STEP 2: Click the Assessor Tab
Step 3: Review the Number of Units (this is the number of permitted units the property has)
With 1415 S Rexford it is pretty easy to spot the non-conforming unit, it is probably the 0Br/1Ba studio unit being rented out for $700/mo. My guess is this building was originally built with a rec room that the owner illegally converted into a studio unit at some point. Non-conforming rental units cannot be registered with LAHD, and you are not allowed to collect rent from them. In addition, if LAHD finds out about the non conforming unit they can require the owner to restore the non conforming unit back to its original use or retroactively permit it, which may or may not be possible with Today’s strict building code (the current owner probably tried to permit the non conforming unit but discovered after visiting the building department that the number of parking spaces required or Max Dwellings units made it impossible to permit).
The Los Angeles Housing Department and the Los Angeles Building Department enforce building codes. They don’t have many resources available for enforcement so they aren’t actively looking for violations. There are two main ways non conforming units are commonly cited- tenant complaints to LAHD and the city of Los Angeles’ SCEP inspections. The city of Los Angeles inspects every registered rental unit every 3 years. You can check if the Los Angeles Building Department has already flagged a non-conforming unit on their website:
And you can also check the LAHD website to see if they have and code violations on the file:
STEP 1: Click Code Enforcement
Step 2: Click Prop Info/Complaints
Step 3: Click Property Profile
And you can search by address and review any complaints, violations, and information from there.
Apartment Buildings located in the City of Los Angeles are at especially high risk of having their non-conforming units cited because of SCEP. Someone purchased 1415 Rexford drive for full list price, and put 50% down. With the non conforming rental income included the property produces a minuscule 0.2% cash on cash for $4,000 cash flow on $2,180,000 invested. If you lost the $700/mo from the studio because LAHD demanded you to restore it to a rec room, your cash flow would turn to a negative -$4,000 per year instead. In this instance, since whoever bought this building was probably an institutional investor or a trust, with a 30-year hold plan, they can take a break-even investment like this work and won’t be sensitive to slightly negative cash flow.
Keep in mind that all your profits as an investor in multifamily apartment buildings come with your last 10% of occupancy after all the expenses, debt service, and maintenance are paid off. Losing the income from a non-conforming could change an income property investment from a great deal to a bad one. There is no guarantee that two years after you own the building, your regular SCEP inspection occurs and the LA city Housing Department inspector tells you that you cannot rent the non-conforming unit. Now the cash flow for the non-conforming unit is gone and in addition you will need to pay the tenant living there relocation assistance of $10,000 to $20,000 and construction expense. Without the non conforming unit income, you either won’t be getting the return you wanted or you might even become negative cash flow!
I discount non-conforming units to no value.
Non-Conforming Unit cash flow is like Token Money but this isn’t the arcade or a car wash at a gas station….
The County of Los Angeles is a bit different because they do not have SCEP inspections, so its a bit easier to get away with a non-conforming unit. I still don’t recommend you rely on income from a nonconforming unit that can be taken away to base your purchase decision on- the safest and most conservative way to value non-conforming unit income is to assume zero income.
Have you been cited for having a non-conforming unit by the city and need advice? Try:
Aaron Cooke 17940 Ventura Blvd Unit B Encino, CA 91316