Commentary: Battle Lines Being Drawn over Single-Family Zoning

By David M. Greenwald

Two of the more contentious bills this term in the State legislature are SB 9 and SB 10, which would allow for increased housing density in single-family neighborhoods.

This weekend, presidents of Sacramento neighborhood associations gathered in front of the Capitol to speak out against those bills.

“We have many very serious concerns about both SB 9 and SB 10,” said Maggie Coulter, the President of the Elmhurst Neighborhood Association.  “They will eliminate predominantly single-family neighborhoods that so many people want.”

She said, “California needs affordable housing but neither of these bills provide that.”

She argued that this approach and the disruption it would cause is “completely unnecessary.”

Jennifer Holden, president of the Mangan Park Neighborhood Association, argued they would “keep lower income ethnically diverse neighborhoods from achieving the American Dream.”

She added, “Sold as the pathway to ethnically diverse communities, the truth is that SB 9 and SB 10 will lower the quality of life for all Californians so that absentee investors and corporations can grow even wealthier while living somewhere else.”

As Eric Gelber notes in his article in the Vanguard 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 combating 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.”

SB 10 creates a voluntary, streamlined process for cities to zone for missing middle multi-unit housing. This legislation allows cities to upzone non-sprawl areas (areas that are close to transit or in existing urbanized locations, thus reducing vehicle usage and long commutes) up to ten unit buildings, if they choose. This streamlining tool will be a powerful one for cities to increase density. By allowing cities to choose to zone for up to 10 units per parcel, SB 10 makes it possible for cities to build significantly more housing in a way that makes sense within their local context.

“California is at a key inflection point when it comes to our housing crisis: we can keep kicking the can down the road while more and more people are priced out of their homes, or we can build more housing,” said Senator Wiener. “These pieces of legislation will make it easier to understand the scope of our housing crisis and what laws are or aren’t working, and will make it simpler to build more missing middle housing. These are three small but effective bills that California badly needs.”

Like Senator Wiener, proponents of these changes see this as a way to increase density and resolve the housing crisis without continuing to sprawl onto open space and farm land.

Opponents, however, see this as the destruction of single-family neighborhoods.

The rhetoric at times is intense.

Susan Shelley, an editorial writer in an op-ed, recently warned, “The Sovietization of California housing is coming.

“We’re not there yet in California, but we’re on the road that goes there,” she said.  “If Sacramento politicians and Los Angeles city officials have their way, we could be halfway there by the end of the year.”

She explained, “By there, I mean an irreversible policy shift that marches us toward a future where single-family zoning no longer exists, having been abolished by the ‘woke’ crowd as an unsavory and embarrassing relic of a time when racial segregation was formally enforced by law or informally enforced by the real estate industry.”

It is interesting to see the policy being hit by both the left and the right.  I find the right-wing attacks a bit ironic, since many conservatives oppose zoning altogether as an unwarranted government intrusion.

On the other hand, in a tweet responding to the protests in Sacramento, former News and Review Editor Cosmo Garvin tweeted, “Really disappointing when folks who spent years fighting for progressive causes switch over to fighting for segregation.”

Senator Toni Atkins, who authored SB 9 tweeted last week, “My district in #SanDiego is chock full of duplexes that are designed to fit into our incredible neighborhoods. They retain the community character we love, while opening the doors for more families to enjoy them.”

In a recent op-ed in the LA Times, Christian Horvath iRedondo Beach City Council, Hawthorne Mayor Pro Tem Olivia Valentine and El Segundo Mayor Drew Boyles all call this the wrong solution to the housing crisis.

“Under its provisions, the owners of parcels currently zoned for single-family use would be allowed by right (subject to very limited environmental and other exceptions) to split their lots in two — and then to have up to two residential units on each lot,” they write.  “In other words, a parcel currently zoned for only one family could soon have four families squeezed together.”

They argue, “These changes in the rules would be imposed on local governments but would not provide true solutions to the state’s affordable housing crisis.”

Senator Atkins responds, “Offering homeowners the opportunity to reimagine their property and potentially create a duplex isn’t a poison pill — it’s a chance to increase the housing supply in California, expand revenue for homeowners and widen access to those who otherwise might be priced out of renting or owning a house.”

She argues that when you “[s]trip away the caustic, tired arguments and there lies the glaring bottom line,” she says the true problem is “a lack of trust among neighbors and fear of change.”

Where are we heading with this?  Probably nowhere near the consensus needed to pass such sweeping changes.

Personally I would love to see the Toni Atkins’ and Scott Wiener’s sit down with the well meaning and generally progressive councilmembers to come up with a solution to the housing crisis that everyone can live with.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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. Ron Oertel

    Like Senator Wiener, proponents of these changes see this as a way to increase density and resolve the housing crisis without continuing to sprawl onto open space and farm land.

    Infill/density efforts do not prevent sprawl, on their own. Sprawl is continuing to occur (and has probably increased, as a result of folks abandoning “denser” areas – such as San Francisco).

    “California is at a key inflection point when it comes to our housing crisis: we can keep kicking the can down the road while more and more people are priced out of their homes, or we can build more housing,” said Senator Wiener.

    There’s only two ways I can think of that “people are priced out of their homes”:

    1)  Uncontrolled rent increases.

    2)  Uncontrolled tax increases.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Restrictive zoning and permitting definitively leads to higher housing prices. There is no more discussion on this point. Here’s the links to the story and the article. You will need to read the NBER article and provide a point by point critique of their methodology before you can reject their findings:

      1. Ron Oertel

        I saw the article, previously.

        Even if one were to accept their hypothesis, it does not apply to those already occupying a home.  None of those claimed costs would apply to current residents. It is not “costing” them more money, once they purchase a property (or occupy a rent-controlled unit).

        And for those purchasing “now” or in the future – those aren’t losses, unless the value of their property subsequently goes down.

        The entire premise is faulty.

  2. Keith Olsen

    Battle Lines Being Drawn over Single-Family Zoning

    Let’s not forget the biggest group against doing away with SFZ, the actual homeowners who purchased their homes thinking they were buying in a SFZ area.  The vast majority of them don’t want to see that changed.

    1. Richard_McCann

      You mean those who want to perpetuate racial segregation? Sometimes larger community requirements supersede individual desires. Requirements for seatbelts and car insurance are just two examples among many. Owning property doesn’t mean that you also get an immutable right to restrict the use of the property around you. Your rights end at your property line.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The argument regarding racial segregation being “addressed” via elimination of single-family zoning has no basis in fact or reality.

        It is a perfect example of a politically-driven canard.

        As is the argument that doing so would “lower prices”.

      2. Bill Marshall

        Your rights end at your property line.

        Tell that to the JeRkeD folk who believe their rights to vote on land use proposals one quarter mile away (or, much farther) are “righteous”, and completely appropriate…

        Maybe we need public votes on changing SFR to something else, in established neighborhoods (?)… nah, anyone who would vote against that would be to “perpetuate racial segregation”, and those folk shouldn’t have the right to vote based on your premise, right?…

        the actual homeowners who purchased their homes thinking they were buying in a SFZ area.  The vast majority of them don’t want to see that changed. [Keith O]

        You mean those who want to perpetuate racial segregation? [Richard McC](BTW, a very inappropriate ‘linkage’… profiling and then some!)

        Would be interesting to know how many JeRkeD folk support the zoning changes elsewhere… views would seem to be inconsistent using the quoted statement (which, as quoted, is in my view, pretty much correct… one of the reasons I opposed J/R/D)…

        I would support the proposed changes to SFR, IF and ONLY if, it is concurrent with total abolition of the J/R/D concept… otherwise, to be consistent, any changes to SFR should be put up to a vote by those within say 1/4 mile of the proposal… maybe more, to be truly consistent…

        Given my agreement, in general (what is done on a given property may well affect the rights, in tangible/real ways to abutting properties, but that is uncommon) with the first quoted statement, I cannot see any justifiable, rational differences between the two… but surely, there will be those who will spin the basics to fit their inconsistent position.

    2. Keith Olsen

      People of color have also purchased homes in SFZ areas.  Do you really think that they want the single family home next to them turning into a fourplex?  This isn’t about race even though there are those who make try to make everything about race.

      1. Eric Gelber

        … there are those who make try to make everything about race.

        And there are those who deny that anything is about race. As pointed out in the earlier article on SB 9, single family zoning was specifically about race. E.g.,

        Renting a duplex is less expensive than renting or buying a single family home. So, intended or not, single family-only zoning excludes more affordable housing options, which has a disparate impact on racial minorities.

  3. Edgar Wai

    What are the rights of homeowners association I this situation if there is already one?

    Can a homeowner decide to split the parcel by right and ignore objections from HOA? Does it outlaw such decisions by HOA?

      1. Keith Olsen

        What is the Republican plan for building more housing?

        I can tell you what it isn’t.

        They’re not for you buying a home in a SFZ area just to later find that the rules get changed and all of a sudden you are living to a four-lax.

        They’re not for open borders and mass immigration creating a never ending need for more housing that we can never supply enough of.

  4. Ron Oertel

    Some interesting articles, including this one I came across yesterday.  These corporate purchasers of single-family dwellings “target” those who would otherwise be first-time homebuyers (primarily in less-expensive areas), and have access to cash.  They are a significant presence in the Sacramento region.  But the story below focuses on someone in Indianopolis.

    “To have to talk to the landlord, and hear they were sitting on a ton of cash and they wanted to turn it into a rental while we are just trying to buy our first home would be really hard,” he said. “But to find out the landlord is a hedge fund and it is owned by some faceless company? That may be worse. We don’t want to rent the place. We want to buy.”

    (Though personally, I think that buying a home is over-rated, ties you down to one location, and is primarily propped-up by the real estate industry.)

    I am a Black grandparent, homeowner and member of the Altadena Town Council. I grew up in a single-family home, and my husband and I have lived in our house in Altadena for more than two decades.

    But state and local elected officials in California–and across the United States– now seek to alter single-family zoning so that big developers can rush into middle- and working-class communities of color, demolish single-family homes and build pricey, market-rate apartments in their place. That dangerous agenda is playing out in California through Senate bills 9 and 10, which would gut single-family zoning and open the door for predatory developers — many of whom are regular campaign contributors to state and local politicians.

    Elected officials say that more housing needs to be built to address the housing affordability crisis, but their harmful agenda is based on failed trickle-down policy.

    And here’s one I came across, today:

    Lumber prices have turned negative for the year after a red-hot rally as the home improvement boom cools

    The drop in lumber adds credence “to the age-old admonition that ‘the best cure for higher prices is higher prices'”, Oppenheimer Asset Management analysts said in a recent note.,daily%20newsletter%2C%2010%20Things%20Before%20the%20Opening%20Bell.

    (My fifth comment in this article, for today.)

  5. Bill Marshall

    Oh… and if this should come about, impact fees and M-R assessments should equally apply to other units and/or lots… the  current, or no less than the same, as the abutting properties… not to do so would be inconsistent with the rationale for both…

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