Commentary: Is the Elimination of Single-Family Zoning in the Cards?

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Mission Residences infill along B Street – is it too dense for the surrounding neighborhood?

By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – While the city of Davis has thus far avoided a debate that has increasingly been waged across the country on single-family zoning, that could be ending shortly.

Last week the group, Sustainable Growth Yolo, was among a number that have pushed for changes to single-family zoning in Davis.

The group called for changes that would allow duplexes and even quadplexes in areas zoned R-1.

“Legalizing the addition of up to four units on a single family zoned lot would allow for more housing development without expanding the city footprint or contributing to urban sprawl,” they wrote in a release that the Vanguard published last Tuesday.

The Housing Element Committee, which met on Thursday, voted 10-0 to recommend explore removing R-1, single-family home only zoning.

While the vote was only advisory, it does open the door to the debate.  It’s a complex debate in Davis.  Some argue that the city needs additional housing—particularly in light of the views of the city and consultants that the city lacks sufficient land to zone for its necessary housing allotment.

While many in the community are in agreement on the need for new housing, there is an additional divide between the need to lower barriers for more peripheral growth (such as the removal of Measure J requirements for a vote on the conversion of ag land) and those arguing that we should preserve ag land and concentrate on infill and densification.

A move to eliminate or modify R-1 zoning comes with controversy as well.

Eileen Samitz pushed back, noting that she opposes the concept of eliminating single-family zoning, arguing that allowing two to four (or more) units to be built on a single-family lot next to a single-family residential unit was problematic because the home was originally purchased “because it was in a single-family zoned neighborhood—had the reasonable expectation for it to remain a single-family neighborhood.”

A commenter noted, “So one buys a home in what is designated a single family zoned community and at any time a close neighbor could sell to a developer and ‘2-4 (or more)’ units could be erected possibly right next door?  Who would be okay with that?”

But that might be the trend—in California as a whole.  Not just Davis.

As Eric Gelber notes in his article today on SB 9, Sponsored by Senator Toni Atkins, the bill “would not eliminate R-1 zones; however, it would broaden the type of housing permitted by right in single-family zones.”

According to the author, SB 9 “promotes small-scale neighborhood residential development by streamlining the process for a homeowner to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot. SB 9 strikes an appropriate balance between respecting local control and creating an environment and opportunity for neighborhood scale development that benefits the broader community. To that end, the bill includes numerous safeguards to ensure that it responsibly creates duplexes and strategically increases housing opportunities for homeowners, renters, and families alike.

“At a time when many Californians are experiencing economic insecurity caused by the pandemic, this bill will provide more options for families to maintain and build intergenerational wealth—a currency we know is crucial to combatting inequity and creating social mobility. SB 9 provides flexibility for multigenerational housing by allowing homeowners to build a modest unit on their property so that their aging parent or adult child can have an affordable place to live.”

A 2019 NY Times article, “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.

“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.”

As a 2019 NY Times editorial elaborates, “The United States is suffering from an acute shortage of affordable places to live, particularly in the urban areas where economic opportunity increasingly is concentrated. And perhaps the most important reason is that local governments are preventing construction.”

The Times notes that Minneapolis was moving to end single-family zoning.

Obviously Davis is not there yet.  The debate has not happened. We have already seen folks lining up with arguments for and against.

Personally I have seen well done duplexes and even more dense homes that seamlessly transition into single-family neighborhoods.  I have also seen properties that seem to stick out like sore thumbs, dense housing plopped in the middle of single-story single-family homes.

As Davis scrambles to find space for housing, this figures to become a hot topic for discussion.

—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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22 thoughts on “Commentary: Is the Elimination of Single-Family Zoning in the Cards?”

    1. Todd Edelman

      Keith, these are the kind of people who make it so all the streets are not full of SUV’s belching black smoke when their owners are not on other continents, killing people for the benefit of wealthy shareholders and banks.

      1. Ron Oertel

        If that was true, they’d be simultaneously advocating against sprawl and for more dense housing on campus.

        None of the YIMBY-type groups do so.  And this particular group also advocates for more sprawl.

        https://www.sustainablegrowthyolo.org/news/project-one-mbb75

        That is, when they’re not attacking residents who are concerned about the impact of megadorms. Unfortunately, some on the council have been ignorant-enough to be fooled by this.

        https://www.sustainablegrowthyolo.org/news

        I believe that this particularly group is run by Don Gibson, but their membership is not listed.

        1. Ron Oertel

          From the link, above.

          If there is not a liberalization of infill policy, then greater acceptance of peripheral development becomes the relevant question. Measure J/R/D has been in effect for 20 years now, and no project has broken ground to date. Of the six that made it to the ballot, only two passed and faced hurdles after already meeting the high bar of a Measure J/R/D vote. Nishi property has been caught up by CEQA lawsuits and now almost three years after the election have not broken ground.

          And of course, Gibson is advocating to bypass Measure D entirely, on two parcels.  (Of which one of those parcels reportedly has connections to a developer member on that same committee.)

        2. Ron Oertel

          If you can’t see that they’re implying that Davis “must” provide infill or sprawl (when it’s literally quoted and demonstrated by subsequent actions), that’s on you.  It’s essentially an attempt to create division, and create a fake “choice”.

          Davis already has a plan to address RHNA requirements.  Now, if those megadorms end up not “counting” toward the RHNA requirements, there could be a problem – which you could then lay directly at the footstep of “Sustainable Growth Yolo”, along with those who failed to check into this prior to approval – despite being warned.

          But really, I’d ask what any of the YIMBY groups are doing to reign-in sprawl, such as what’s occurring in Woodland, El Dorado Hills, etc.  (Actually, that same question would apply to SACOG itself.)  The short answer is that they’re doing NOTHING about that.

          California isn’t growing – it’s just spreading out (as a result of telecommuting).  It’s moving in the opposite direction of what SACOG and the state “claim” to support.

          By the way, have you ever noticed how these YIMBY groups are viewed in places like San Francisco?  (They don’t appear to be well-liked, due to gentrifying impacts – especially on communities of “color”.)  For that matter, these YIMBY groups appear to be primarily “white” themselves, which is normally a concern for social justice types.

           

           

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            As I said originally, can you show me where they advocate for actual sprawl or are you calling any peripheral development sprawl? None of your answers addressed this question.

          2. Don Shor

            Davis already has a plan to address RHNA requirements.

            The question has been raised as to whether that plan is realistic with respect to the likelihood of the identified parcels actually getting developed, and therefore whether it is adequate.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I see that you’ve successfully caused me to continue using up comments (while you have an “unlimited allowance” of those).  Is this a strategy of yours?

          It’s literally in the quote, as well as the subsequent actions by the Housing Element Committee.

          They are advocating for either more infill, or more sprawl.  They literally state this, and are also criticizing the “difficulty” of getting Measure D developments approved.  Which is apparently the reason that Don Gibson is advocating to bypass Measure D, for two parcels.

          This is a fake choice.  The city already has a plan, as noted – assuming that the megadorms “count”.

          I will not be responding further to that question. Read the quote, and examine the subsequent actions. That’s your answer.

        4. Richard_McCann

          First, why should SGY’s membership be listed? Why is it only groups that you oppose that need to list their memberships and finances? Your hypocrisy is amazing at times.

          Second, YIMBY has not been advocating for sprawl if you follow media reports in the Bay Area. Instead, the group has consistently been pushing for densifying within existing city boundaries near job and transit centers. Some of this has been development of open space that is interspersed in these communities such as in Lafayette, but that’s to mitigate leapfrog development and bring multifamily closer to the Lafayette BART station.

          Third, Don Gibson was on the Chancellor’s Affordable Housing Task Force. Appears hardly one who would advocate against adding denser housing on campus.

          Fourth, advocating for more housing in available land adjacent to already developed land when more housing is required to address the current lack of supply that is making housing increasingly unaffordable here is hardly advocating for “sprawl.” As I, and others, have posted, adding even more housing on campus is not a panacea for this situation and creates its own problems. And demand does not appear to be decreasing locally despite stagnation of the state’s population. That’s because Davis is a job center and in a regionally attractive position. Trying to stop “sprawl” in Davis just means that even worse types of sprawl will occur in other regional communities. Advocating for ending Measure J/R/D is NOT advocating for sprawl. That’s just your completely misguided interpretation because of your desire to reinforce the moat around Davis.

          Even so, this statement in one of the links you posted hardly appears to advocate for sprawl.

          Promoting infill and making it easy to build the missing middle, such as low-rise apartments two or three stories, is a proactive step to promote a greater diversity of housing units.

          Fifth, voter imposed limits such at Measure J/R/D may be declared illegal shortly. An Oceanside case ruling shows the likely path: https://commercialobserver.com/2021/05/san-diego-ruling-could-impact-california-housing-statewide/

          https://www.linkedin.com/in/don-gibson-3311a615/

          Ron, you are blind to the problem around you and selfishly refuse to acknowledge that any problem exists.

        1. Richard_McCann

          Ron O

          Please provide your definition of “sprawl.” Here’s one I propose:

          Urban sprawl, also called sprawl or suburban sprawl, the rapid expansion of the geographic extent of cities and towns, often characterized by low-density residential housing, single-use zoning, and increased reliance on the private automobile for transportation.

          I don’t believe that anyone is advocating for this type of development peripheral to Davis, and most importantly, not SGY.

  1. Todd Edelman

    We have a lot of blackfields (parking lots) and chemical / water entitlement fields (golf courses) that need to be used for housing.

    How many actually golf at Wildhorse? I don’t know anyone who golfs, do you?

    We could have lots of housing. Nice housing. Housing is nice. Housing is more important than car storage and golf.

    Truly ecologically-minded and responsible cities convert all parking lots and some golf courses into housing and mixed-use. It’s clear. It’s not simple.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Sorry, Todd, but I know many golfers (but I don’t myself and would prefer to use the land for running–sigh…) That said, we also cannot currently dictate conversion of land to another use for property owners. That would require a complete rewrite of the US Constitution. Given the process of revising the Constitution, it’s unlikely that we could come out with a favorable change in this regard (and on many other issues.) Instead, we need to make policy within the constraints that we are given and ignore wishful thinking.

      1. Todd Edelman

        Who said anything about “dictate”? The owners – as good Davis citizens – would offer some of this for more housing? This too may be wishful thinking, but I am also not morally rotting as I prioritize keeping turf green in an increasingly arid land, populated with the un-housed.

  2. Ron Oertel

    First, why should SGY’s membership be listed?

    Why wouldn’t they?

    Why is it only groups that you oppose that need to list their memberships and finances? Your hypocrisy is amazing at times.

    Seems like a personal attack. But regardless, what makes you claim this?

    Second, YIMBY has not been advocating for sprawl if you follow media reports in the Bay Area. Instead, the group has consistently been pushing for densifying within existing city boundaries near job and transit centers. Some of this has been development of open space that is interspersed in these communities such as in Lafayette, but that’s to mitigate leapfrog development and bring multifamily closer to the Lafayette BART station.

    They do NOTHING to advocate for containing sprawl.  An entire series of articles is in order, regarding who is financing these groups.  As well as the the politicians who associate with them, and do their bidding.

    Third, Don Gibson was on the Chancellor’s Affordable Housing Task Force. Appears hardly one who would advocate against adding denser housing on campus.

    Did you read yesterday’s article?  He voted against the proposal regarding this, while on the Housing Element Committee.

    But really, why is anyone paying any attention to this guy (and his “unsustainable” growth group, anyway)? Especially since they spend a lot of their time attacking Davis residents in the first place. (Seems like they don’t particularly “like” Davis, to begin with – or at least its residents.)

    Fourth, advocating for more housing in available land adjacent to already developed land when more housing is required to address the current lack of supply that is making housing increasingly unaffordable here is hardly advocating for “sprawl.” As I, and others, have posted, adding even more housing on campus is not a panacea for this situation and creates its own problems. And demand does not appear to be decreasing locally despite stagnation of the state’s population. That’s because Davis is a job center and in a regionally attractive position. Trying to stop “sprawl” in Davis just means that even worse types of sprawl will occur in other regional communities. Advocating for ending Measure J/R/D is NOT advocating for sprawl. That’s just your completely misguided interpretation because of your desire to reinforce the moat around Davis.

    How are you defining “supply”?  Does it include the sprawl occurring in the southern part of Woodland, for example?

    Davis is absolutely NOT a “job center”, and never has been one.  UCD is.

    Fifth, voter imposed limits such at Measure J/R/D may be declared illegal shortly. An Oceanside case ruling shows the likely path: https://commercialobserver.com/2021/05/san-diego-ruling-could-impact-california-housing-statewide/
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/don-gibson-3311a615/

    Not sure which specific comment you’re referring to, but it sounds like you and he are hoping for that.  And yet, didn’t you just put forth a claim that he’s not advocating for sprawl?

    Ron, you are blind to the problem around you and selfishly refuse to acknowledge that any problem exists.

    Seems like a personal attack.

    Let me ask you something.  How much do you think that new housing (e.g., in the form of sprawl around Davis) would cost?  More, or less than The Cannery, for example?  Seems like an important question to answer, regarding the “build-it-to-affordability” claims.

    And as housing prices rise everywhere (while salaries aren’t really keeping up), how do you prevent residents/families who are moving to the area from purchasing in nearby communities (such as Spring Lake), where they get much more for their money, and an easy commute to UCD?
    Ignore
     

     

    1. Richard_McCann

      Again, you haven’t answered why any group should have to list its membership? Anonymity is a protected First Amendment right. You need to show why its a requirement, not the other way around. You call out only the ones that you oppose. It’s the definition of hypocrisy to not have such an inconsistent position.

      They do NOTHING to advocate for containing sprawl.

      I see them advocating for land development using a set of clear criteria that mitigates sprawl such as requiring public transit access and eliminating SF zoning. And as I point out, they advocate for infill and densification. All of that contains sprawl. What measures do you propose to “contain sprawl.” And off the table is forcing all new housing onto the UCD campus. If that’s you’re only solution, then its clear that you actually don’t have a solution.

      Voting against requiring UCD to accommodate all of its housing demand on campus is no way an indication  that he opposes increased density on campus. This is not an either/or situation–it’s a matter of degree. What proportion of housing should be on campus–it is not “if it’s not 100% then it must be 0%.”

      UCD is not economically separate from Davis, and most of the housing for campus staff is in Davis. That’s a fictional understanding of the situation. Political boundaries are irrelevant in defining the economic dynamic. Davis is a regional job center and UCD had been the major economic driver in this city. No one else agrees with your false belief. If  you said this in a public forum, you’d be laughed out of the room.

      Removing voter restrictions isn’t advocating for sprawl. David and I have put forth proposals that fit within the current Measure D framework and probably would survive the type of challenge successfully made in Oceanside.

      As I have said over and over, we don’t need to increase housing supply in a specific segment to lower what housing prices would be otherwise. Even if it is expensive housing then the demand for older, smaller houses falls which in turn leads to otherwise lower prices for that older, smaller housing, making it more affordable. This is how economic processes work as I’ve seen in my 35 years of professional work as an economist.

      If Spring Lake is so attractive, why does the price differential for Davis over Woodland continue to exist with no indication that its closing? It’s the many amenities here that keeps housing demand so high and so too prices.

       

  3. Dan Cornford

    Excellent comments by Ron as usual.  However, I want to raise a much larger question or issue:  It seems likely that some version of SB 9 or 10 will pass effectively ending single family zoning in CA—whatever Davis does.  How many people have thought about the massive political backlash at the state level, and far far beyond that, that this could cause, not so much in Davis.
     
    Sure the Republicans purport to be anti-regulation, but they rightly see a huge opportunity here for massive voter backlash—and backlash at supposed “progressive” YIMBY Dems which Newsom et al. will have rightly be seen as has having caved into.   Anyone remember the 2020 presidential campaign and Trump trying to make the most of the fact that CA would abolish single family zoning?   (Google it if you don’t believe me). Think that won’t happen again even if it is not Trump?
     
    A few of us take it for granted that a lot of Davisites are flat earthers,  but all those young, predominantly white YIMBY’s, with their developer backers, are also.   And our CC and Commissions caved into them long ago.
     
    If this all seems too abstruse  and theoretical, let me put it another way:  To begin with circa 90% of Davis and California residents are completely unaware that single family zoning could be abolished where they live. 
     
    As I put it in an email to a reporter at the Davis Enterprise (begging the reporter and the DE to give more coverage to the issue) yesterday: “How many people know that, imminently, SFH zoning could end, both in Davis and statewide; that one day they could wake up to the sound of bulldozers and jackhammers as 2-4 units building  (or even more in some cities) are put up next door to them  (as their former neighbor has sold for top dollar to, knowingly, or unknowingly, a developer)? 
     
    Whatever your politics, whatever your position on all the DHEC recommendations, does anyone really doubt that the ending of single family zoning, in some form or other,  will not have serious political consequences?

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