A construction project visible from the 405 freeway in Los Angeles near the Howard Hughes Parkway exit. (Photo by Nicholas Williams)

Opinion: ‘Freeway close’ may be too close to home

“Freeway close” is a phrase used to describe a home that has easy access to a freeway for commutes. But given the affordable housing crisis, the term has taken on whole new meaning. Developers are seizing the opportunity to build housing units almost anywhere, including right next to some of the busiest freeways in the country. This includes the 405, which is the busiest freeway in the country.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued guidelines in 2005 recommending against living any closer than 500 feet to a freeway. Health risks from living close to a freeway include asthma, strokes, reduced lung function, heart disease, and cancer. These risks are due to breathing in so much traffic-polluted air. Nevertheless, approximately 1.2 million people in Southern California live within 500 feet of a freeway.

Although these guidelines have been issued by CARB, there is no law or zoning restriction to stop people from living in buildings next to a freeway or to stop developers from building next to a freeway. The LA City Council has considered labeling buildings close to a freeway with health advisories so that residents are aware of the dangers. That idea gets push back from many different sides.

Of course, there is a concern that those labels could affect the perceived value of the housing units and it could result in a disincentive for developers to build more housing. This possible incentive is the primary driver for keeping residents in the dark about the potential health hazards of living next to a freeway. Others argue that Angelenos know that living next to a freeway is not good for you, so having a warning label is almost insulting to residents’ intelligence.

The scarcity of housing is real and building more housing units is something that Southern California must do. However, it is unclear if increasing the supply of housing will ever able to address the demand for housing in a meaningful way. What is clear is that gridlock on freeways will continue to pump toxic fumes into the air, affecting those living nearby.