Commentary: Is the Elimination of Single-Family Zoning the Answer?

Senator Scott Wiener could not get his zoning changes through the legislature – yet – but as a couple of recent articles that appeared in the New York Times over the last week demonstrate, it might be only a matter of time before California revisits, at the very least, the notion of single-family zoning.

An article that appeared in yesterday’s paper, “Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot,” argues,“Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods. Now some communities regret it.”

The article begins with a graphic that shows, while New York has only 15 percent single-family detached homes, cities like Los Angeles have 75 percent, Seattle has 81 percent and San Jose has 94 percent of that style housing.

“Single-family zoning is practically gospel in America, embraced by homeowners and local governments to protect neighborhoods of tidy houses from denser development nearby,” the Times reports.  “But a number of officials across the country are starting to make seemingly heretical moves.”

The impact of that zoning is far-reaching they say, noting, “It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.”  That number is actually higher in suburbs and newer cities in the Sun Belt.

The problem, as cited by the article: “While zoning remains invisible to many people, the problems it’s connected to increasingly are not.”

The article addresses the housing shortage and environmental concerns, where they note: “Single-family zoning leaves much land off-limits to new housing, forcing new supply into poorer, minority communities or onto undeveloped land outside of cities.”

Scott Wiener’s bill, they note, has been effectively killed for this term by homeowners and local officials who wish to maintain local control.  While there are other portions of the bill that have gotten more notice, one provision is, “It would also permit single-family homes to be subdivided into as many as four units, and multi-unit buildings to go up on vacant lots in single-family neighborhoods.”

The Times editorial on June 15 (Americans Need More Neighbors) argues: “A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.”

The editorial highlights the housing crisis, arguing: “Housing prices, and homelessness, are rising across the country because there is not enough housing.

“Increasing the supply of urban housing would help to address a number of the problems plaguing the United States,” they write.  “Yet in most places, housing construction remains wildly unpopular.”

Furthermore: “People who think of themselves as progressives, environmentalists and egalitarians fight fiercely against urban development, complaining about traffic and shadows and the sanctity of lawns.”

Their solution is Minneapolis.  Currently 70 percent of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes, according to the other article.  But that could change.  That is because “Minneapolis is ending single-family zoning.”

Like Davis and other places, Minnesota is suffering from the missing middle, where young couples in apartments cannot afford to scale up to $400,000 homes.

The Times writes: “As cities across the country contend with an affordable-housing crisis that has led to gentrification and homelessness, few have been willing to take on single-family zoning, a way of living that is fiercely protected by neighborhood groups.”

The remarkable thing is the so-called Minneapolis 2040 plan drew thousands of public comments and, yes, a last-minute lawsuit.  But it passed the council on a 12-1 vote.

The Times writes: “Experts say adding density to single-family neighborhoods is a powerful tool to address housing affordability and chip away at segregation. While going so far as to eliminate single-family zoning may not be politically possible everywhere — the Minneapolis City Council is made up of 12 Democrats and one Green Party member — success there could offer one model of what is possible.”

“Minneapolis is not alone in being a city with a history of intentional segregation,” Mayor Jacob Frey said in an interview this week. “I’m hopeful that we’re not alone in undoing it.”

The Times editorial notes that “the elimination of single-family zoning was crucial in building political support for the plan, ending a system under which more than 60 percent of Minneapolis was sheltered from change.”

The Times argues that the affordable housing crisis cannot “be solved by new construction alone” and they advocate for more subsidized housing, but at the same time they argue that “advocates for affordable housing should be jumping up and down and screaming for the construction of more high-end apartment buildings to ease demand for existing homes. Those new buildings are filled with people who would otherwise be spending Saturdays touring fixer-uppers in neighborhoods newly named something like SoFa, with rapidly dwindling populations of longtime residents.

“Market-rate construction also can help to reduce the need for public housing subsidies in the longer term,” they argue.

As we know, in California, legislators from the wealthy and lower density cities blocked similar plans.  And perhaps Senator Wiener has tried to bite off too much at once and should have taken each proposal one at a time.

What went right in Minneapolis, according to the Times editorial board, was that a “crop of young politicians” wanted more housing.  “The city is conducting an early experiment in government by and for millennials,” they write.  Moreover, “For the first time in the city’s modern history, more than half of its residents are renters, including Mayor Frey.”

Then again, Davis is a city with a majority of residents as renters, but their power is diffused because many are students so are either transitory residents or do not vote.

At the same time, the Times points out a phenomenon in Minneapolis which we have observed in Davis as well.  Many people came to speak during public comment.  In Davis, many of the long-time residents have spoken out against projects, of which the younger speakers were supportive.

One observer in Minneapolis noted the same: “It was so stark…  It was just so easy to guess, just judging by age, what side they were going to be on.”

The Times points out that the advantage Minneapolis has over coastal cities is “its housing prices still are relatively modest, so its population includes a lot of middle-class families.”  In the coastal cities, housing debates “pit the wealthy against the poor, and middle ground has been hard to find.”

Is this a way forward?  Maybe.  Perhaps Senator Wiener would be best advised to address one issue at a time in his proposal.  Stay tuned.

—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. Bill Marshall

    Elimination of single family homes (title of article) or being more flexible on residential zoning (main thrust of data cited in the article itself)?

    Davis has always had some flexibility in zoning, but perhaps, not enough… there are a lot of duplexes in town, some tri-plexes, and an entire subdivision of four-plexes (La Buena Vida)… many ‘affordable’ units, within subdivisions such as Mace Ranch, Covell Park, Country Lane Homes (there is another nuance there!), Covell Park Northstar, etc., etc. were duplexes.

    Under the Davis ordinances, up to 4 dwelling units per lot is considered SF… 5 or more, MF.

    Really unclear about the point of this article, given its “banner”…

  2. Alan Miller

    “advocates for affordable housing should be jumping up and down and screaming for the construction of more high-end apartment buildings to ease demand for existing homes.

    First of all, “jumping up and down and screaming” is how 7-year-olds get their way with bad parents, not how advocates work with a City.  Bad advice unless all your advocates are 7-year-olds and all your councilmembers are Democrats — oh, sorry, I meant bad parents.

    Second, “high-end apartment buildings” are what developers want to build, so they can make maximus profits.  Thus, spreading this b*llsh*t with a giant spatula that building “high-end apartment buildings” will bring down the price of single-family homes (which, oddly, ‘they’ want to eliminate) is a ploy by the development community, not a way to increase housing for students and middle-income families (for local ploy, see: Trackside).

  3. Ron Oertel

    From article:  “The article addresses the housing shortage and environmental concerns, where they note: “Single-family zoning leaves much land off-limits to new housing, forcing new supply into poorer, minority communities or onto undeveloped land outside of cities.”

    And yet, officials in Folsom are touting a 25,000-resident development on undeveloped land for “millennials who recently graduated from Folsom’s high schools” who are looking for homes (see article, below).

    As side note, that’s a lot of claimed local high-school graduates who apparently have money. I wonder if that same claim is made regarding undeveloped land in Natomas, Elk Grove, Roseville, etc.

    Increased density in cities will likely drive an additional exodus to single-family housing, on undeveloped land.


      1. Ron Oertel

        What part is not clear to you?

        People have been flocking out of crowded cities (to sprawling, suburbs) for decades.  Make it more challenging in highly urbanized areas, and that trend will intensify.  (Perhaps with the exception of higher-income individuals, tied to businesses or employment in a given area.)

        In general, it won’t be the highest earners displaced to sprawling locations like Elk Grove and Natomas.

        I noticed that you and I both have positive things to say about the recent guest article, in which the German government essentially does not permit developers to speculate on undeveloped land. Our system is probably too intertwined with development interests, to ever adopt that approach.

        In the meantime, there’s no evidence that density prevents sprawl. In fact, it probably encourages it.

        1. Craig Ross

          For one thing I am not sure where you come down on the issue of eliminating single family zoning.  People have been flocking out of cities because (A) their housing is too expensive and (B) the lack of housing.  So by changing zoning laws you provide new housing, more density and more affordability and such a scenario will reduce the incentive to add massive new developments in places that are more suburban.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I don’t think so – not when developers can speculate on undeveloped land (to offer the white picket fence, single-family home).

          Places like Natomas and Elk Grove are likely accommodating lower-income folks who have been displaced from the Bay Area, while Folsom, Granite Bay, Roseville, and Rocklin accommodate higher-income migrants from the Bay Area and elsewhere.

          Despite what “officials” claim about the Folsom sprawling development, it’s not likely going to be primarily occupied by 25,000 high-school graduates from that area.

          There also ends up being some racial division (as a result of different income levels), in those sprawling locations.


        3. Bill Marshall

          Alan… Ron O (although I’m under a DV restraining order discouraging engaging him)

          But, in the interest of fair play of my question, when I was born, my parents lived in a four unit apartment in the Bay Area… when I was one year old, moved to a 2 Bd/1 Ba 850 SF house in the Bay Area… my parents lived there for 47 years, until they passed… in college, and for 3 yrs after, lived in dorms/apartments… then bought our own SF house in E Davis, then moved to a SF house in FE Davis (Mace Ranch)… where we still reside…

          Am being transparent, knowing that since I used to work for the City for 32 years, and knowing how the internet works, anyone with a bent to, could find that all out within an hour, anyway.  Hell, anyone can find out how much I get in my PERS pension!  Don’t much like that, but it is what it is…

          So, did that answer your question, and do you think my question of Ron O was “fair”?

          If not, as to the latter, please feel free to use the ‘report comment’ feature.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Bill:  Your background (or mine) is not relevant to the conversation.

          I will tell you that my views regarding development were basically formed a long time ago, and have not changed during various incarnations of my home (including the time when I was a renter).  Nor have they changed with age.

          The only difference now is that I can more clearly see that the system itself is corrupt.  The recent guest article illuminated that, in a very clear manner.

  4. Alan Miller

    “Market-rate construction also can help to reduce the need for public housing subsidies in the longer term,”

    Yeah.  That’ll happen.  #cough#

    1. Craig Ross

      Not following your logic.  Market rate construction that is affordable by design (and size) should reduce the need for public housing subsidies.  You act as though there is a huge outpouring of demand to build those.

        1. Bill Marshall

          I mean this as a friendly comment and I “get” what you mean, but if you own a house, your property tax has a HO exemption… a subsidy… if you will… same as to mortgage interest deductions, property tax deductions… and the Prop 13 limits as to increased valuations… another ‘subsidy’ [although non-res properties are getting HUGE subsidies, under that postulation]

          Guess you might mean, ‘another subsidy’… but, could be wrong… you might view all ‘subsidies’ as wrong… which is fine.

          I’m not in favor of special subsidies either… but as long as they exist, will take advantage of them

        2. Eric Gelber

          I am anti-subsidy.

          Bill Marshall makes excellent points. Most government subsidies benefit property owners. In addition, here’s a list of California cities where a single person with a disability receiving SSI can afford to rent a one-room apartment:



          The average rent for a one-room apartment in California is 138% of SSI. An efficiency is 117% of SSI. I take it you are also opposed to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the Section 811 Project Rental Assistances Program, the National Housing Trust Fund, etc. End subsidies and then see what happens to homeless and institutionalized population numbers.

        3. Bill Marshall

          Eric… not sure we’re on the the same wavelength, but have never felt affordable property ownership was a “right”, but decent (not every amenity) affordable shelter/housing comes pretty close to a “right”… being sheltered from weather, having basic needs (as opposed to ‘wants’/desires) met, affordably, I’m there.

  5. Rik Keller

    The way Scott Wiener has structured the legislation, it IS the answer to make the main sponsors and drafters of the bill–the real estate industry and developers—more wealthy. See the latest here:

    “So, all of the following is gone under SB 592:

    *Residential zoning since any “non-residential” use is permitted up to one-third of the space of a project, including the running of a hotel, extended stay, corporate, boarding or rooming house, dorm or other business renting out a bed or other “residential” space;

    *Low density zoning of any kind particularly single family or 2 family zoned residences;

    *Architectural, design, historic and aesthetic standards – all areas now are open to Soviet style grey cinderblock construction or Robert Moses style overcrowded projects;

    *All “objective” zoning criteria if a project “could be approved” on a variance or conditional use or any other discretionary request.

    Wiener’s land-use legislation has never been a debate or a conversation about policy or about affordability or about homelessness. He ducks out of town halls or only takes friendly softball questions.  He does not take serious questions or legitimate debate about the substance of his industry-drafted bills.

    But aside from the substance, the tactics, the tricks and the sneakiness of the text in SB 592 (as well as SB 330, AB 1487 and several other industry drafted bills this legislative season) are usually incomprehensible to the average legislator and the average resident.

    After much ado, our Legislature passed a comprehensive package of 15 housing bills that were effective as of January 1, 2018. While not perfect from anyone’s perspective, that package balanced the different policies and alternatives and was determined to be the best way forward to create affordable housing and address the housing needs in our state.  Despite the fact that not even one construction cycle has elapsed, industry has come back through their lobby and certain legislators to try to undo all that was accomplished in 2017.

    The 2019 legislative package is an effort to roll back the requirements for inclusionary affordable housing (by way of retroactive application in SB 330 and other bills) and to trample all over the local controls, the safety, habitat, conservation, historic preservation, and other interests and elements of good planning that were taken into account though weakened in the 2017 compromise legislation.”

  6. Rik Keller
    “One of the most disheartening aspects of the YIMBY movement and the Scott Wiener coalition has been their absolute refusal to learn from and be in conversation with the housing justice conversations that have worked in different parts of California for decades. In many ways, it is a movement and coalition that has insisted on putting the housing crisis of the upper-middle and middle classes before the housing crisis of anyone else…
    …there is the simplistic housing supply argument that if we just build more housing—regardless of the price point—it will trickle down and lower housing prices for all, and somehow, magically, more housing will appear for those who are disadvantaged. That is not how housing markets work. They are thoroughly segmented and segregated.
    But most importantly, in SB 827 and even in SB 50, there was very little concern given to the key policy issues that tenant and housing justice organizations were pushing for, such as rent control, rent stabilization, and protections against displacement. SB 827, and then SB 50, were both ways of solving the housing crisis for the upper-middle class—particularly for the white, entitled YIMBY movement—by grabbing the land of those who are truly on the front lines of the housing crisis.”

  7. Rik Keller
    Build More Housing’ Is No Match for Inequality
    “A new paper by two leading economic geographers suggests this argument [“build more” and upzone] is simply too good to be true. Titled “Housing, Urban Growth and Inequalities” and forthcoming in the journal Urban Studies, it’s written by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Michael Storper, who divides his time among the LSE, UCLA, and Sciences Po in Paris. According to Storper and Rodríguez-Pose, the notion that an insufficient supply of housing is a main cause of urban economic problems is based on a number of faulty premises. They say the effect of supply has been blown far out of proportion….


    …But housing policy, and zoning restrictions in particular, are certainly not the be-all and end-all of urban problems. Upzoning expensive cities is no match for the deep divides within—and especially between—cities, and is wholly insufficient to remedy them…


    …Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful,” Storper recently told Planning Report. “The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.” And as Rodríguez-Pose told me via email: “Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.”…

    “The affordability crisis within major urban areas is real,” they write, “but it is due less to over-regulation of housing markets than to the underlying wage and income inequalities, and a sharp increase in the value of central locations within metro areas, as employment and amenities concentrate in these places.”







  8. Craig Ross

    Rik likes to cite these studies, but he’s not only on the fringe of his own field, but increasingly so.  The planning industry is not moving in his direction, it is moving the direction suggested by the NYT and slowly in the direction of Senator Wiener.  No one is really that interested in discussing these long cut and pastes which is why it largely killed the discussion, but Rik doesn’t seem to understand it.

    1. Mark West

      “No one is really that interested in discussing these long cut and pastes which is why it largely killed the discussion, but Rik doesn’t seem to understand it.”

      I think he understands the cause/effect just fine. A ‘dead’ discussion is better than a ‘live’ one that highlights the failures of your advocacy.

      1. Rik Keller

        Mark West: the long cut-and-pastes are the story that the Vanguard isn’t telling us. You aren’t discussing it because you have nothing to say other than free market platitudes.

        1. Rik Keller

          It speaks volumes that Mark West (and whoever he is quoting) thinks that links to actual research and data “kills” the discussion. It is also ironic that this article in the Vanguard (like many others) consists almost entirely of quotes from another publication.

  9. Ron Oertel

    Rik:  Thanks for posting the references.  They speak for themselves.

    I am not the least bit surprised that Wiener’s efforts have largely failed.  If anything, I suspect that resistance will grow, if another attempt is made. Either that, or there will be changes which will essentially gut the proposals. (To the point that they’re deader than the interest this article is generating.)

    1. Rik Keller

      You’re welcome, Ron! Greenwald is very out of touch with the conversation and would never post them himself. But most people in the housing policy world have seem to have caught on to Wiener’s increasingly desperate and craven tactics to push his developer/realtor-backed agenda.

  10. Rik Keller

    Here’s another part of the story that the Vanguard isn’t telling us:

    “René Christian Moya, director of the L.A.-based group Housing is a Human Right, points his finger towards the California’s own powerful real estate interests. “On the one hand, you’re seeing a strengthening of the tenants’ movement at the local level, with more activism around the issue of tenants’ rights and more people aware that there is an acute housing affordability crisis,” he says. “But at the same time you’re seeing a big show of force by the real estate industry and corporate landlords in California.””

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