A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
This small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley sold for $1.8 million in 2014. Jeff Chiu/AP

As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

In my neighborhood in San Francisco (or, more accurately, my parents’ neighborhood) there’s a plan afoot to build 42 units of new housing in two parking lots, just steps from a light rail line. Thanks to the city’s inclusionary zoning laws, 18 to 20 percent of those units must be offered at below market rates, on streets lined with single-family homes worth around $1.5 million, and renting for around $5,000 per month, according to Zillow.

Construction could still be years away, due to the city’s byzantine approval process. But the neighbors are already buzzing about the plan, expressing fears that the development won’t fit the neighborhood and preparing demands to scale the project down. It’s Bay Area NIMBYism-as-usual—except that my neighbors are progressive enough to blanch at that now-loaded term. They’re still YIMBYs, as one writer on our local listserv insisted—just the kind whose “yes” to new housing is a bit more qualified.

Such is the state of housing politics in late 2018, on the bleeding edge of a land-use revolution. Booming, expensive cities need more housing, especially the affordable kind. The question is, where will it go? Downtowns are sprouting with cranes, but land values are such that all market-rate development is uber-expensive. And there’s lots of housing, both market rate and affordable, going up in once-low-income neighborhoods that are now gentrifying. Meanwhile, neighborhoods like my own—full of single-family homes—remain virtually untouched by new development.

Convincing—or forcing—the homeowners who rule these neighborhoods to accept new housing that is not consonant with the existing fabric of million-dollar homes is an oft-overlooked front in America’s housing wars, and one that could have a huge structural impact. Adding dense or below-market-rate apartments in high-income neighborhoods close to job centers allows more people to live and commute in an environmentally friendly manner, increases economic mobility, and counters the shameful legacy of segregation.

In Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, San Francisco tenant activist Randy Shaw paints a picture of a nation beginning to wake up to its housing crisis, but unsure of what to do about it. For years, the discussion around housing affordability in big cities has focused on gentrifying neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. But according to Shaw, not enough attention is being paid to the wealthier, usually single family home neighborhoods that have effectively walled themselves off from all new housing construction, creating a sort of spatial class privilege that is rampant in America’s most progressive cities. “These high-opportunity neighborhoods must serve more economically diverse residents,” he said in a recent interview in CityLab. “[C]ities that claim to promote inclusion cannot just relegate the non-rich to economically segregated parts of town.”

Generation Priced Out makes the case that providing a wider variety of housing options in these neighborhoods is the missing policy intervention for addressing America’s housing crisis. In his detailed descriptions of successful and not-so-successful housing strategies from around the country, Shaw demonstrates that cities are starting to create a policy playbook that addresses both housing supply and affordability. But as cities exhaust more and more of the housing interventions that are available to them, single-family-home zoning will loom ever larger, until it becomes too egregious to ignore.

***

Shaw is a unique breed of housing activist; as the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, he’s long fought for tenants’ rights and affordable housing, but he’s also a strong advocate for building enough market rate housing to keep up with job growth. For decades, and to this day, American cities have not done enough to address either issue, he contends, but some have done a better job than others with particular strategies.

While Shaw calls San Francisco “a cautionary tale of unaffordability,” he also says it “does the best job of every major city in protecting tenants and its rental housing stock.” Of course, he would say that: Shaw is the architect of many of those policies. But it is true that the city has significant tenant protections, including very low rent increase caps for rent control tenants and strong restrictions against the demolition or combination of existing affordable units. The city has also pioneered innovative policies, like its free legal representation program for tenants facing eviction, and a small sites acquisition fund that purchases properties occupied by at-risk tenants and removes them from the speculative market.

San Francisco has not done nearly as well on the supply side, however, adding just one unit of housing for every 12 jobs between 2010 and 2015. Seattle, by contrast, added one unit for every three jobs over this period. Shaw points to Seattle and Denver as cities whose rates of housing construction have made a serious impact on affordability. In January 2018, Seattle saw its biggest month-over-month decrease in median rents in a decade. Between the third and fourth quarters of 2017, Denver saw its biggest decrease in median rents in 36 years, and rents continued to fall the last two quarters of 2017.

But Seattle and Denver are stymied in their efforts to protect existing tenants by state policies and preemptions. Both Washington State and Colorado (along with the majority of states) bar cities from enacting rent control. In California, too, rent control remains limited by a state law, as voters failed to pass Proposition 10, which would have allowed the state’s cities to expand rent limits. In Washington, just cause eviction laws are also hampered by preemption, and in California, the notorious Ellis Act results in thousands of evictions every year.

In the face of these obstacles, and the lack of financial support for housing from state and federal governments, cities are trying to make the most of the tools they have. Portland, San Francisco, and Alameda County (which contains Oakland and Berkeley) have all passed affordable housing bonds in recent years, and Austin and California just passed housing bonds this election.

In addition to building more housing themselves, the biggest thing cities can do to improve housing affordability is change zoning laws. Inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to reserve a certain percentage of new units as affordable, has become more popular in recent years (although some states, like Colorado, also preempt it). But not all inclusionary zoning is created equal: New York’s 2016 law only applies to projects that request zoning variances, even though 35 percent of the city’s land area, including many low-income areas, had recently been rezoned. Inclusionary zoning in D.C. and San Francisco applies to all projects of a certain size.

In concert, increased supply of affordable and market-rate housing, along with strong tenant protections, can stabilize gentrifying communities. Evictions in San Francisco decreased by 21 percent between 2016 and 2017, and another 12 percent between 2017 and 2018. And in the Mission District, the Latino population actually increased by 1,500 between 2011 and 2016, following years of declines. Shaw attributes this trend to an increase in both nonprofit affordable housing and inclusionary units—and, somewhat more controversially, to the “by any means necessary” tactics employed by anti-gentrification activists. By protesting and threatening to hold projects up in court, activists in neighborhoods like the Mission and Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights have negotiated for more affordable units in many projects, and likely discouraged speculators.

These tactics are productive because their practitioners are still pro-housing: They want to maximize the amount of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. But in single-family-home neighborhoods, residents tend to be against any kind of new housing, especially if it’s affordable. In San Francisco’s affluent Forest Hill neighborhood, residents successfully killed a 150-unit development for low-income seniors, a stone’s throw away from a subway station, arguing that it would attract mentally ill and drug-addicted people. Shaw’s book is full of similar examples from around the country of homeowner groups opposing new housing on baldly elitist grounds.

The other tactic frequently employed by homeowners—saving “neighborhood character”’—is often a means to the same end. “Character” must be understood as not only visual, but also demographic. In cities like San Francisco, preserving the status quo for a single-family-home neighborhood often “means maintaining it as a neighborhood where future residents must be rich,” Shaw writes. Another critique levied by those who do not want their neighborhoods to change is that new housing construction in expensive urban markets is inevitably luxury housing. But this argument falls flat when nearly all existing homes are already luxury housing: According to a recent Trulia study, a staggering 81 percent of homes in the San Francisco metro and 70 percent of homes in the San Jose metro are worth more than $1 million. Conveniently, single-family-home zoning also functionally prevents the construction of nonprofit affordable housing, or the below-market-rate units that are generated by inclusionary zoning.

Those who love historic houses are joined in the 21st century by most politicians, planners, and real estate types. Doing away with single-family zoning will not resurrect Robert Moses and unleash him on our neighborhoods. Many cities have demolition controls that prevent sound housing from being arbitrarily destroyed, and these laws could be easily strengthened. Every neighborhood can make room for more neighbors without losing older homes, whether by building units in basements, backyards, and parking lots, or by repurposing nondescript commercial buildings. Besides, San Francisco’s charming Victorian neighborhoods and LA’s rows of bungalows are already peppered with contemporary buildings that interrupt neighborhood character—except that most of these buildings are 5,000 square-foot single-family homes.

The irony is that the communities most vehemently opposed to new apartment buildings—cities like Portland, Oregon, and Cambridge, Massachusetts—are among the most politically and socially progressive in the nation. They are “trapped in the framework of past urban renewal fights,” Shaw writes, when historic, low-income neighborhoods were demolished willy-nilly, and suburban-style urban development was viewed by many as a more environmentally friendly style of living. And so are land use regulations, which responded to citizen outcry in the ‘60s and ‘70s by downzoning many neighborhoods, which prevents new apartment buildings (but permits modest single-family homes to be converted to McMansions). Today, 42 percent of Portland, 57 percent of Seattle, and 78 percent of Los Angeles are zoned exclusively for single-family homes.  

Times have, in fact, changed since the 1970s, but getting liberal urban Boomers to understand that will be a massive undertaking. As Shaw’s title suggests, this is nothing short of a generational project that should engage YIMBYs, anti-gentrification activists, and progressives of all stripes who recognize how intersectionally damaging single-family-home zoning is.

To bolster this progressive stance, upzoning should always be accompanied by inclusionary zoning. But a more radical approach, and one that would really give coastal liberals pause, would to be to upzone only neighborhoods above a certain median income threshold, or those that have historically excluded people of color. Upzoning these areas to allow more mixed-use, mixed-income development “opens up middle-class housing opportunities in these otherwise off-limits communities without any risk of displacing low-income residents,” Shaw writes. Good luck arguing against that, my silver-haired comrades.

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