Sunday Commentary: Will California Really Get Rid of Single-Family Zoning?

The statewide housing crisis has definitely spawned a number of initiatives and some different approaches.  Earlier this week there was a thought-provoking op-ed in the LA Times, “Holy cow! California may get rid of single-family zoning.”

Kerry Cavanaugh opines: “California may be on the verge of eliminating single-family zoning statewide. This is huge. And it’s a sign of how quickly the politics around housing and land use have shifted in just the last year.”

Of all the housing proposals, SB 50 is probably the one that is most controversial.  It’s original form was SB 827 last year, but that bill died fairly early in the process.  The key provision is that local governments would not be able to block new apartment developments within a half-mile of public transit, and it would ease parking requirements, thus reducing costs.

Senator Wiener has made a number of changes to the bill, including a 15 to 25 percent mandatory inclusionary housing provision.

Still, a lot of housing and environmental groups oppose the measure.   Despite this, SB 50 was able to advance.  What Ms. Cavanaugh points out, however, is part of the deal that Senator Wiener cut was to merge his proposal with that of SB 4 by Senator Mike McGuire from Healdsburg.

She points out that this produces one very big change: all single-family homes could be converted from their current use to a four-unit building – by-right, anywhere in the state.

That is the opposite of what the city of Davis just did with an urgency ordinance, enabling neighbors and residents to have due process when a property owner proposes increasing the floor-area by 40 percent on an existing building.  Prior to that, in the city of Davis, such upgrades were not only by-right, but leaving the neighbors without any due process of law.

Writes Kerry Cavanaugh: “A property owner could subdivide or remodel a house to turn it into four apartments. Or a developer could build a fourplex on a vacant single-family lot. The proposal wouldn’t allow people to demolish a house and build a new fourplex on the property, however.”

She does caution: “It’s unclear how many property owners could reasonably convert a house to apartments, or whether this proposal would significantly increase multi-family housing in what are now single-family neighborhoods.”

She also notes that there are serious questions about whether this proposal could survive future committee hearings, the Assembly or even get Governor Newsom’s signature.

Originally, SB 4 and SB 50 were seen as competing bills.  Both focused primarily on new housing near mass transit.  One big difference between the two bills was that Senator McGuire, who represents relatively small communities, focused chiefly on cities with populations of 50,000 or greater located in a county with a population of less than one million.

That would include Davis and Woodland, but not Healdsburg where Senator McGuire resides with its 12,000 people.  Thus, it would have been exempt from the previous zoning change.

In early April, SB 4 passed the Senate Housing Committee by an 8-1 vote, with SB 50 passing the same committee by a 9-1 vote.

On April 24, the bills were scheduled to go before the committee again, where they worked out their compromise.

As Ms. Cavanaugh points out: “Let’s just pause on the fact that a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that would allow apartments pretty much anywhere in California.”

She continues: “This would be a major change from the status quo. Wiener has said that it’s illegal to build more than a single-family house (plus an in-law unit) in roughly 80% of California’s residential neighborhoods.”

At the same time, perhaps, the proposal is not surprising.  Single-family homes, while not yet going the way of the dinosaur, are not exactly the wave of the future.

And, as Ms. Cavanaugh points out herself, “The political winds have been shifting on single-family restrictions.”

That is across the country.  Minneapolis last year voted to eliminate single-family zoning.  They instead created new rules to allow duplexes and triplexes to be built on lots reserved for one house.

Why would they do that?  Because single-family housing is a barrier to affordable housing.  In Davis, when we attempted to have single-family, for-sale homes as subsidized, big A affordable housing, there were all sorts of problems – it’s hard to limit equity, they are expensive to build, and it led to all sorts of scandals.

The result is most affordable housing in Davis is now multifamily and rentals.  They will have affordable apartments, with some duplexes and townhouses, but not detached single-family homes.

As Ms. Cavanaugh points out, the policy makes it easier to build communities that are denser and thus more affordable.

Furthermore, they also “help integrate neighborhoods that are still segregated as a result of discriminatory housing practices dating back decades.”  She points out: “Strict single-family zoning was often adopted as a way to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group.”

It’s not just Minneapolis.  They are now looking at doing the same in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, “the high-cost cities of Seattle and Portland have considered rezoning single-family lots or allowing up to four-unit buildings in single-family neighborhoods. One Oregon lawmaker proposed allowing fourplexes on single-family lots in any city in the state with more than 10,000 residents.”

She notes that even Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, an opponent of Senator Wiener’s proposal last year to open single-family neighborhoods to denser development, is warming to the idea.

He told the Times in early April that “the city was looking at the Minneapolis model of allowing triplexes on single-family lots as a way to build more housing ‘that is also neighborhood compatible.’”

Is this too radical a concept?  Probably.  But you can see how the thinking here is starting to evolve.  And it is not just happening in California.

“No community should see dramatic change, but every community should see some change,” Senator McGuire said Wednesday before the vote to blend his bill into SB 50.

But the problem that many will have is by making such changes by-right, or in the case of SB 50 by overriding local considerations, you’ve taken a lot of land use discretion out of the hands of local government.

While I can see the thinking behind this, a better approach would be, in my view, to still find more ways to build affordable housing California – which could achieve similar results.  Rather than take away land use discretion from the cities, I think it would be better to find betters ways to finance and subsidize projects.

Right now with the loss of RDA (Redevelopment Agency funding), even allowing for zoning barriers to go down, it seems doubtful that – without finding funding mechanisms – this would produce housing for lower income people currently being priced out of the market.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Jim Hoch

    With almost 8,000,000,000 people in the world you will not be able to accommodate everyone who wants to live here regardless of how terrible you make the quality of life.

  2. Ron Glick

    When I was growing up in Los Angeles I saw this process play out  with densification along the Wilshire corridor going up and infill apartments replacing single family homes. As a young person it was extremely alienating and was key in my decision to go north.

    Perhaps it is the natural next step beyond what more suburban Sounthern Cal refugees experienced in places like Orange and San Diego Counties. While over many years some have argued on here against all or most peripheral development as sprawl I have been suggesting that some peripheral development would be preferable to densification. It may now come to pass that local opposition to densification will be overridden by state law. I think that would be a terrible idea. This is also why I am opposed to renewing Measure R. I believe out can often be better than up.

  3. Eric Gelber

    “A man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.’’ Walt Whitman (1856). It’s not the 19th or even 20th century anymore. Neighborhoods comprised of only single family homes with white picket fences are no longer feasible if we are to address the statewide housing crisis. Yes, funding mechanisms are needed. But rigid zoning barriers and exclusions are also a barrier to addressing the housing crisis. Societal needs change, and new approaches are needed.

    1. Alan Miller

      “A man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.’’ Walt Whitman (1856).

      It’s not the 19th or even 20th century anymore . . . Societal needs change, and new approaches are needed.

      Or maybe that’s why there aren’t as many whole and complete men anymore.

  4. Mark West

    “While I can see the thinking behind this, a better approach would be, in my view, to still find more ways to build affordable housing California”

    The ‘problem’ is that local jurisdictions are using zoning restrictions to limit the expansion of housing, particularly multi-family apartments and townhouses.  The direct approach to address this problem is to negate those local zoning restrictions and allow the market to create new housing. What you are proposing is to create a publicly funded bureaucracy to build expensive housing that is intended to be rented at below market rates. How is your approach ‘better?’

        1. Rik Keller

          You didn’t answer my question, Mark. Go ahead and publicly list all of the neighborhoods in Davis where you think this should happen first.

          And while you are at it, go ahead and publicly pledge that you will not support any new single-family development in Davis.

        2. Mark West

          A.M. :”I’m sure your next door neighbor appreciates that.”

          The house next door has been a student rental since the mid 80’s. I suspect the owner would enjoy the opportunity to expand in order to increase her income.

          R.K.: “And while you are at it, go ahead and publicly pledge that you will not support any new single-family development in Davis.”

          I’ve stated multiple times, including several times during the CC campaign, that we need to build high-density multifamily housing, including apartments, townhouses, and condominiums.  I have also stated publicly that we do not need to build any more detached single family homes. This is not a new position for me.

          R.K.: “Go ahead and publicly list all of the neighborhoods in Davis where you think this should happen first.”

          All of them. We can start with my own neighborhood and then move on to yours.

        3. Rik Keller

          Mark West: you are  saying that all single-family neighborhoods in Davis should have their zoning negated and also that no new single family housing should be built in Davis?

          Those are strong positions! If these positions “are not new” to you, certainly they would have been part of your City Council campaign? Can you provide links or documentation? I’m having problems locating this info.

        4. Mark West

          I’m not running for office, Rik, so I have no need to dig up trivia for you. Do you own research if you are that interested.

          “no new single family housing should be built in Davis”

          I did not say that, which you would know if you had bothered to read my words. What I said was

          “we do not need to build any more detached single family homes.” [emphasis added]

          The point is that we should be more efficient in how we use our resources. We need more single family homes, we don’t need them to be the low-density mini-mansions that our local real estate brokers like to hawk. My first home was a rowhouse in Baltimore, which was quite pleasant, and much more efficient use of land than the houses in my current neighborhood.

          1. Don Shor

            So it’s really difficult to take seriously the idea that you are taking this position seriously now.

            Mark West has been very consistent in advocating greater flexibility in zoning and development for both commercial and residential properties over his many years of participation here on the Vanguard.

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