My View: Single Family Zoning Remains the Battle Line, At Least for This Year

Share:

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

The more I read and learn about single-family zoning, the more I realize that, while this is a battle line this year, both sides have actually overblown its importance.  On the one hand, changing the zoning to allow for duplex and split lots is not really going to change the character of a lot of neighborhoods.  And on the other side of that—perhaps even because of that—changing the zoning is not going to solve the housing crisis.

I tend to favor allowing rezoning because it will add some housing.  But if duplexes or fourplexes are done correctly, it should really have a minimal impact on neighbors.  Cities just have to be diligent about size, mass and scale.

I appreciated Matthew Yglesias blog entry on Thursday.

He pointed out that Berkeley is considering changing their zoning rules and that has prompted opposition to proclaim “the war on single-family homes is a war on families.”

Yglesias worries that this kind of message is completely misleading and will have a determinantal impact on reform.

He pointed out: “Most Americans live in single-family homes, and many of those who don’t aspire to. If people believe that zoning reform is a critique of those homes or the desire to live in them, zoning reform is likely to fail.”

It reminds me of a comment made on the Vanguard that the push for reforming single-family neighborhoods somehow suggested there was a belief that people didn’t aspire to single-family homes.

Of course they do.  But for many—especially in California, especially in the expensive portions of California—that dream is out of range.

Yglesias also fears “proponents of zoning reform may not work hard enough to correct the misperception.”

He writes that “a significant minority of the American population does not live in detached single-family homes. And many of the people in that minority have a strong affective preference for neighborhoods full of apartments and rowhouses and have developed a resentment over the years of the normative status of the detached single-family home in the United States.”

Yglesias notes: “What exacerbates my worries on this score is that in many experiences, a decent share of zoning reformers feel insecure about adhering to what’s basically a free market regulatory position. Politically speaking, the most important thing is to appeal to older normies with moderate views.”

I get a little lost at this point in his piece.  But up until that point it was pretty solid and based on what I have seen in the debate so far it is reasonably accurate.

The problem here is he wants to turn this into an issue of choice.

“It’s good for people to be able to choose,” he writes.  And then compares this to cars.

But Iglesias here I think misses the boat.  This really isn’t an issue of choice.  It is an issue of affordability.  Comparing it to cars might work.  Hey I might endeavor to buy an expensive flashy luxury vehicle, but I can’t afford the monthly payments.  Thus people of modest means will buy a good car in the $15,000 to $30,000 range, rather than the $50,000 to $100,000 range, for example.

Or if I am low income, I am either buying a low end new car, or more likely a used car.

Yglesias argues: “Except in the housing context where we refuse to let people decide what they want to do. City planning is extremely prescriptive, and documents are full of assertions about what is and isn’t ‘suitable’ to various areas as if upon moving to D.C. they confiscated your SUV and forced you to buy a small hatchback.”

This is where we get into problems though.  People will argue, if you can’t afford Davis, move to a location that is cheaper.  Makes sense.  Or you can’t afford this neighborhood, you move into another neighborhood.  That also makes intuitive sense.

The problem of course is that is what we have done for the last 70 years or so since the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racially restrictive covenants.  Single-family homes have become a new covenant—not based on race, but based on economics.

We end up with neighborhoods that are heavily racially segregated not because we still have restrictive real estate covenants, but rather because we have zoned them as such that people of lower economic classes simply can’t live there.

The other problem here is that this issue cuts right across normal political cleavages.  You see it in liberal/progressive portions of Berkeley.

“The war on single-family homes is a war on families.”

This is not a liberal versus conservative issue.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  Most of the people who live in the areas impacted by reform live in deep blue areas where there are very few people on the right.  Instead this is an economic issue.  The haves versus have-nots.  Those who are perhaps upper middle class against those who are working class.

It is therefore one of economics but also proximity.

Yglesias wants to address this problem here through a strong switch to property rights.

He makes some interesting points here worth considering.

He writes: “You are allowed to build an apartment building that has a ‘no pets’ rule and you are allowed to build a gated community that’s only for childless old people. And both of those things exist. In a world without exclusionary zoning, it will still be possible for private developers to build subdivisions that have specific internal governance rules.”

Yglesias problably goes further than I would here.

He writes: “[J]ust as we don’t in general let people veto their neighbors’ decisions about pets and kids, we shouldn’t in general let people veto their neighbors’ decisions about what kind of structures can be built on their land.”

My problem is that while he accepts concessions for both safety and environmental protections, he doesn’t seem to take seriously the need to control size and scope.

He concludes here: “If you’re a homeowner, giving up your right to veto what your neighbors do would be a significant concession. But in exchange, you would get the right to do what you want without being subject to a veto.”

Here is his frame for the NIMBY v. YIMBY fight.

He writes: “YIMBY says that you should not, subjectively, object to projects in your neighborhood. That you should say yes. A reform agenda says it’s fine for you to dislike new multifamily housing in your neighborhood just like I am allowed to be sad that a neighborhood coffee place I liked closed and was replaced by a vape shop. What I am not allowed to do is prevent the vape shop from opening or prevent the coffee place from closing. I think everyone in the neighborhood misses the coffee shop. The problem is we didn’t miss it enough to buy enough coffee to keep them in business, especially since we have other good coffee shops.

“The key to this is that strong property rights have upsides for homeowners themselves,” he adds. “It’s not just that your neighbor can build an ADU and you can’t stop him, it’s that you can build an ADU and your neighbor can’t stop you.”

Which is fine but I think most people agree there have to be lines.  This debate is really about moving where the lines are.  That’s fine.

I don’t think you win this argument by knocking out the lines entirely.  I think you win the argument by getting enough people agreeing that we need to redraw where the current lines are.  And getting people to realize that redrawing lines makes for a fairer community which will really not personally impact a lot of people in a detrimental way.

Share:

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.

Related posts

32 thoughts on “My View: Single Family Zoning Remains the Battle Line, At Least for This Year”

  1. Ron Glick

    The battle is over and the poor lost when Measure D passed.

    This article misses the point altogether. If we are going to preserve single family homes because they are so great why don’t we build more of them? The inconsistency of the arguments is stunning. Preserve our neighborhoods but don’t build new ones on the periphery.

    Just like the anti-vaxers who don’t want to wear masks the homeowners of Davis want it both ways. We want our single family homes but we don’t want anyone else to have one.

    1. Edgar Wai

      There is no contradiction between preserving single family zoning in a city while preventing more residential zones of any type within the same city limit.

      Doing so can be justified if the city has net positive migration (given the city as restrictions on building new housing, there are still more people trying to move in than to move out).

      New residential zones can still be built elsewhere and they are being built. Cities that are more accommodating should get more land and grants. A city that has net positive migration is accommodating enough to not lose land and it’s local sovereignty.

       

      1. Keith Olsen

        It’s not an infill battle, it’s a pulling the rug out from under homeowners who bought homes in SFR neighborhoods who had reasonable expectations that it would remain that way.

        1. Eric Gelber

          … homeowners who bought homes in SFR neighborhoods who had reasonable expectations that it would remain that way.

          Key word here is “reasonable.” They had every right to purchase a single family home and keep it that way. An expectation that they could forever prevent other property owners from building a duplex on a parcel they own, or converting their SFR to a duplex, that otherwise complies with local requirements (height, setbacks, etc.), or adding an ADU, was neither reasonable nor realistic.

           

           

      2. Ron Glick

        “Single family zoning is not a peripheral housing battle, it’s an infill battle.”

        Maybe in places that are built out to their natural geographic limits but that is not the case in Davis. In Davis the push for infill comes right out of Measure J. Deflecting by ignoring the obvious is  unbecoming of you.

        As for the Measure D election you reference below. What should I have done? Put my life at risk? As Will Arnold pointed out, defeating Measure D would require running a campaign. Running a campaign requires organizing, something I was unwilling to do during a pandemic.

        On the other hand you defended a policy you should have known was bad policy. Now you want to debate things that you admit don’t make much difference instead of advocating for a serious discussion about how to make a difference on housing supply. On several occasions recently you have walked right up to the line on calling out Measure D but you never do. Keith Echols called you on it the other day but you remained silent. Now instead of addressing it you want to blame a private citizen for not doing more during a pandemic. Shame on you David.

         

  2. Edgar Wai

    Democracy by choice allows these:

    1) Individual homeowners voluntarily agree to not split their own lots, and buy lots up for sale in their neighborhood for the purpose of forming a voluntarily formed congruent neighborhood of single family zone.

    2) The city may honor a neighborhood law that declares single family zoning as formed by unanimous voluntary participation (as describe in 1). The law remains active as long as the neighborhood has net positive migration.

    3) Unless a single family zone is declared by 2, by default the lots of a residential zone can be split.

    *Democracy by choice is a way to resolve issues democratically without voting.

  3. Don Shor

    What makes for a more diverse community is move-up housing. When renters can save enough money for a down payment and buy a home, whether s-f or half of a duplex or a manufactured house. Davis is short of that type of housing because many of the older s-f homes are student rentals, and because failing to allow a steady supply of new homes prevents the turnover that allows the move up. That is why our schools are losing population.

    People who are saving up and finally buying those homes are going to Woodland and Dixon and West Sac because their choices here are so limited.

    The simplest way Americans have built wealth to fund their retirements and to pass on to their children has been by buying a home and having it appreciate in value over many years. 

    The simplest move-up homes are duplexes and their ilk, because they can be integrated into existing neighborhoods without much impact. It’s not much different than adding bedrooms to a s-f rental. But it allows people to gain entry into the housing market, have 1/3 of their income going to build their wealth rather than increase a landlord’s wealth. 

    At this time there is a huge disparity as to who is renting and who is buying. Most of us probably know homeowners who leveraged their way from smaller homes or duplexes into the larger home they now occupy and which represents the largest fraction of their personal wealth. 

    By excluding people of color from areas where housing values have increased — first systematically, and then by restricting housing growth — our housing market has functioned to sustain and increase the wealth disparity between different ethnic and racial groups.

    I know there are people who want to believe that all of that racial and housing discrimination is a thing of the past, but we have a multi-generational impact from past policies.

    Look at the genocide that occurred in Tulsa a hundred years ago (Tulsa “race riot”) and think about the consequences. A prosperous community of Black property and business owners had developed following the classic American dream of buying houses, starting businesses, and even providing financial services within their community to help others get a step on that ladder.

    All of that was destroyed, systematically and intentionally with full support of the legal authorities. All the wealth that several hundred Black families had created and accumulated was wiped out, many were killed, and the rest were driven from the community. Later their properties were bought up by white residents.

    Decades later there were apologies and some reparations. But the question is, what was the long-term impact of that? Because that was not an isolated event in American history.

    Where did the Blacks go who were driven from Tulsa? They had to leave with no financial resources and go to other cities where racial barriers to home ownership, covenants that excluded them from home ownership, existed to block them from creating and accumulating wealth. If they came to Sacramento, where could they live? How about Davis?  If they could actually buy a house (unlikely), what value increase would it have over the next decades compared to wealthier white neighborhoods from which they’d been excluded?

    So the ripple effect of the Tulsa genocide continued for generations, probably to this day.

    A community that does not have a range of housing choices will likely become whiter, wealthier, and older. And in so doing, it precludes others from achieving wealth and a better life for their children.

    1. Edgar Wai

      I think profiting by rental properties* is the more important obstacle against move-up.

      * I meant people owning properties more than their own residence, and try to profit from others needing housing.

      The problem is not zoning or how small each parcel is. The problem is people are allowed to own more housing than where they live and to make a profit from renting out those extra housing, which takes up the space for others to own.

      If the law is you could only own one home and move up with it, there will be a healthy bargain market for second hand housing (a thrift real estate industry) because people who want to move up need to get rid of their existing house.

      1. Richard_McCann

        Edgar

        That’s the craziest idea. Who’s going to own the rentals that a large proportion of the population needs because they are transient in the community for any number of reasons (e.g., students, young adults moving up in a corporation, etc.)?

        1. Edgar Wai

          Temporary housing can be provided in a non-profit ways.

          Community housing, company dorm, school dorm, bed and breakfast, inns. House swapping would be streamlined to more like checking in or out of a hotel room without having to pay real estate agents and closing costs.

        2. Bill Marshall

          House swapping would be streamlined to more like checking in or out of a hotel room without having to pay real estate agents and closing costs.

          Show us the way, Edgar, by example.

          BTW, hotels are “for profit”…

          Also, BTW, in addition to eliminating all RE Agent costs (which I believe should be based on actual costs, not by fixed percentage, fixed by the RE Agent ‘syndicate’ [yes, mean like Cosa Housa], a private “tax” as it were), closing costs include paying for title agents, title insurance, payment of outstanding liens (like mortgages), taxes, etc.

          Assuming you see not problem with ignoring all that in a ‘swap’ methodology.

    2. Richard_McCann

      Don

      So well said, more eloquently than what I’ve been saying for years. Could you turn this into an article for the Vanguard so we can find it more easily in the future in response to those who don’t understand the relationship of the housing market and segregation? Thanks

  4. Ron Glick

    “Yglesias problably goes further than I would here.”

    Not hard to do. You talk a good game but support the biggest thing choking supply, Measure D.

    “Which is fine but I think most people agree there have to be lines.”

    See what I mean you support lines like the limit line created by Measure D.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      By a 83-17 margin, the voters effectively took your preferred alternative off the table. Instead of dealing with that reality, you effectively punted before, during and after the election.

  5. Ron Oertel

    People who are saving up and finally buying those homes are going to Woodland and Dixon and West Sac because their choices here are so limited.

    The simplest way Americans have built wealth to fund their retirements and to pass on to their children has been by buying a home and having it appreciate in value over many years.

    And what, exactly is wrong with Woodland, Dixon, and West Sac regarding those same goals?  In fact, they are a better-deal (and more attainable, especially for young families starting out).

    The simplest move-up homes are duplexes and their ilk, because they can be integrated into existing neighborhoods without much impact.

    Moving around a lot (e.g., via buying and selling homes) is a good way to lose money.  It generally makes more sense to purchase something that you’ll live in for a long time.  Thereby also allowing it to appreciate, as you’ve noted.

     

    1. Richard_McCann

      Ron

      Since you’re from Woodland, you’ve clearly made your choice with regards to living in Davis. Don’t try to impose that choice on the rest of us here in Davis.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I am not “from” Woodland.

        Regardless, you sound an awful lot like one of those Davis “elitists” who don’t want input from others. Which is strange, given your arguments.

        How’s the air “up there”?

        And, what did you think of my Davisite article? You were the latest inspiration for that.

      2. Moderator

        1. There is no residency requirement for commenting on the Vanguard. Residents of nearby cities, or anywhere else for that matter, are welcome to post and comment here.

        2. The topic of this article is single-family housing. Please stick to that.

         

  6. Tim Keller

    I think we are at a slow turning point in society.   The “suburban experiment” with single family homes serviced by cars is widely regarded as a failure by urban planners, but the voters / consumer seem not to understand that yet.

    But discussing the issue in terms of “single family housing” is I think over-simplified.   Its not that single family homes are evil and racist.   It is the euclidian R1 zoning that says in this HUGE area ALL you can build is single family… which means EVERYONE needs a car to just get out of their neighborhood and to the nearest store..  That factor alone IS a huge economic discriminator.

    To illustrate further, I might say comfortably that I don’t want Davis to build ANY more R1 zoned developments.     But that doesn’t mean that there should never be another single family home built.   There are in fact a lot of examples of “good” development where there is plenty of single family homes… the trick is that they dont have huge street setbacks, they are dense, and there is commercial mixed in within walking distance everywhere.

    Here is a great video which should be required viewing for everyone who cares about planning issues in Davis: https://youtu.be/MWsGBRdK2N0

    That video shows a town which has HIGH population density, is walkable, and still has a lot of the feel of the nice suburban single family homes that people want.   That is what we should be building in the future in Davis, and what we should be allowing our existing R1 zones to become.

    There is another concept that I really want to talk about with regards to how to make that latter part work well… but I’ll save it for another post.

    1. Matthew Bryant

      The main pressure point is California is so gang heavy, and most the people having the most children see the world as literally the HBO show The Sopranos and The Wire that the Demand for the safest option to raise kids in is high.

      some people just have kids and realize they can’t sleep at night raising them in the communities they grew up in, and they will seek out Davis.

       

      there will also be people seeking out Davis(thanks to the brand campaigns aimed at home owner families…) to just expand “gang” membership.

       

      end of the Day, California is on a downward trajectory, but being propped up on short term gains on fraudulent stock valuations and this new interest in public/private key encrypted commodity market… that is honestly scary, when you look at the “Market Caps” and you understand the tech.

      Most parents of children I grew up with all left Davis shortly after their kids began establishing lives in other states.

      Davis has to increase housing and single family rental options just based on California’s needs, and the fact that homes are being bought up to rent as Frat and Sorority “Satellite homes”.

      I drove Uber at night in Davis for months, I know who flips homes in Davis…

      The future is Davis having slums at some point, Robert Moses logic for cities the wealthy look for is real, and still applicable for looking at how Davis will age.

    2. Richard_McCann

      I responded to Tom Elias when he wrote this article about SB 9 and SB 10: https://www.desertsun.com/story/opinion/columnists/2021/08/02/proposed-housing-bills-could-cause-radical-changes-california/5455563001/

      In our discussion, he referred to Santa Monica as an example of single family housing with a diverse population. I know Santa Monica fairly well as my in-laws live next door. If it has SF zoning anywhere, it’s in small patches. Apartments and businesses are scattered everywhere. And yes, there are blocks full of single family houses, but they are in limited areas. Santa Monica is a very desirable place to live as best as I can tell (and based on my in-laws property value.) Somehow the lack of R-1 zoning hasn’t turned into a living hell…

      1. Ron Oertel

        Got it.  You were responding to an article you saw in the Desert Sun, you called this guy, and your discussion turned to Santa Monica in reference to your inlaws.

        And you noted that Santa Monica is a desirable (exclusive) place to live, even with very little single-family housing.

         

  7. Eric Gelber

    On the one hand, changing the zoning to allow for duplex and split lots is not really going to change the character of a lot of neighborhoods.

    I’d be cautious about using the vague and subjective concept of neighborhood “character.” Historically, it meant excluding non-whites. Today it is often code for excluding housing for lower income households, special needs housing, etc.

    And on the other side of that—perhaps even because of that—changing the zoning is not going to solve the housing crisis.

    Who has ever claimed that changing zoning would “solve” the housing crisis? It’s one of myriad means for addressing the housing crisis. It’s not a panacea.

  8. Alan Miller

    On the one hand, changing the zoning to allow for duplex and split lots is not really going to change the character of a lot of neighborhoods.

    It depends on which buildings are removed, and if you live next door to the duplex or not.

    And on the other side of that—perhaps even because of that—changing the zoning is not going to solve the housing crisis.

    No it will not.  But for the developers of the lots that get redeveloped — priceless.

    I tend to favor allowing rezoning because it will add some housing.  But if duplexes or fourplexes are done correctly, it should really have a minimal impact on neighbors.

    Not the neighbors next door. So it’s buy a house roulette. I’m into architecture and historic buildings.  Historic preservation is important to me.  Not just a few magnificent buildings, but neighborhoods and their bungalows and other houses and structures.  This zoning thing ‘to solve housing’ is a threat and yet does little this.  I don’t care what race of people live there.  Housing prices are what they are, so of course people who can afford to live are the people that do – and a few conversions can wreck the neighborhood but really so a couple more people can live there.  Wow.

    1. Ron Oertel

      and a few conversions can wreck the neighborhood but really so a couple more people can live there.  Wow.

      True, but there’s at least a remote chance that it will slightly increase diversity in a given neighborhood.  Isn’t that possibility reason enough?

      (Where’s that sarcasm button?)

      Of course, it might not as well. Might lead to an even higher concentration of white people. In which case, the entire neighborhood will need to be bulldozed.

      1. Alan Miller

        (Where’s that sarcasm button?)

        It’s disabled in the Vanguard, along with the humor button and the pun button.

        Of course, it might not as well. Might lead to an even higher concentration of white people.

        Building new buildings would increase the cost per room of the new rooms relative to the old rooms, but there would be slightly more rooms on the market.   I’m guessing the developers win.

  9. Matthew Bryant

    Here’s all the math…

    Californian’s with Children want the least scary schooling for their children where the education is not complete “boondoggle” fraud… and where their kids will build the best network(people to build and expand drug trafficking culture with, which is my experience as a 37 year old resident of Davis with no real friends despite growing up here, cause I’m the bastard of the Special Agent Fed cop or something, and I hate illegal drug use cause of all the actors who shouldn’t be dead, recently dead since 2008)

     (Sacramento Area has some of the most active gang membership activity in the nation, there are over 30 gangs that run their gangs like City Councils… just watch MSNBC Lockup when they profile the Sacramento Jail in Midtown…)

     

    however, these single family rentals do bring in more kids… from families looking to rent in the “good” school district…

     

    so, these children of renters, who’s students enroll in our schools… those children bring in somewhere around $22,000, per “body”, that the federal government will pay our school district to educate… or to do something with… who knows.

    Are school district Books public? The Books being financial Books, those with line item spending, and all that stuff?

     

  10. Ron Oertel

    I would continue to note (as others have) that there’s a direct connection between Davis and Woodland, in that anyone who wants a (new) traditional single-family dwelling (in or near Davis) is probably going to buy in Spring Lake. The type with at least a 2-car garage (if not 3), some kind of yard, etc. In other words, normal families.

    Even more so, with the technology park planned there (along with an additional 1,600 housing units), on top of however many have been built or planned in Spring Lake itself.

    There’s a reason that the developer named it “North, North Davis”, and puts advertising signs at the corner of Covell and 102.  Seems like the only folks who don’t see those signs are the development activists on here.

    Here’s a link to the planned technology park (which “moved” from Davis):

    https://www.cityofwoodland.org/583/Woodland-Research-Technology-Park

    Spring Lake is where young families are going for local single-family housing (if they want a “new” house, at least).  I don’t see why (or even how) Davis can compete with it, in regard to that particular market.  The development activists never tell you why Davis needs to copy this, either.

    Just a bunch of noise, regarding undefined “demand”.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that perhaps 75% of the homes in Spring Lake have someone in the household with a connection to Davis.  Just a guess.

    Families who might end up in whatever (new) shoe-horned box (for the same price) in Davis are of a totally different breed (and a smaller family), than those who end up in Spring Lake. In other words, abnormal families.

    Though there are “pre-owned” houses in Davis, which would appeal to the same demographic (and are within the same price range).  And as usual, the only folks who don’t see this are the same development activists referred to above.

    https://www.zillow.com/homes/davis,-ca_rb/

    But I guarantee you that those actually looking to buy (rather than argue on here) look at both locations.  In my opinion, “pre-owned” houses in Davis are generally preferable to new ones in Woodland.  They will also hold their value better than those in Spring Lake, during the next inevitable housing crash.

    The only thing that Davis has to worry about are the artificial housing requirements that the state is forcing on all cities.  And even that plan is ultimately just a piece of paper.

    Good luck with everything you’re going to be dealing with from cities throughout the state, HCD.

     

     

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for