To make SF livable, single-family zoning must be changed

Let’s move to create affordable housing for working class families


The 2020 Census data has revealed that the U.S. has become more diverse in the last decade. The white non-Hispanic population fell from 196.8 million in 2010 to 191.7 million in 2020, reaching its lowest share (59 percent) of the U.S. population ever. The Hispanic population now adds up to 19 percent, Blacks 12 percent and Asians 6 percent of the total national count, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

But “this increase in regional and ethnic diversity has not led to increased racial and ethnic integration,” said Samir Gambhir, director of the Equity Metrics program at the Othering & Belonging Institute, at an ethnic media briefing. More than 80 percent of metro regions in the nation are more segregated in 2019 than in 1990, he added.

Closer to home, seven out of nine counties in the Bay Area have higher levels of segregation since 1980. But here’s the good news: San Francisco is one of only two counties (the other being Alameda) that has shown a “substantial decrease” in segregation since 1980, even if there’s still a long way to go for The City to be considered “inclusive.”

The divergence index, which compares the Bay Area’s racial demographics, shows that seven out of nine counties have higher levels of segregation since 1980. (Courtesy Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley)

The divergence index, which compares the Bay Area’s racial demographics, shows that seven out of nine counties have higher levels of segregation since 1980. (Courtesy Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley)

Gambhir pins restrictive zoning as a contributing factor for this rise in segregation.

Parcel level data analysis that Gambhir and his colleagues have done reveals that 50 percent of San Francisco’s residential lots are zoned as single family, which disallows for townhomes, duplexes and apartments.

Besides the needless waste of land use, there is also a lack of diversity in single-family zoned areas. A majority of residents in single-family zoned areas are white, compared to 36 percent in other residential zoning neighborhoods.

And here’s where the problem lies: In the Bay Area, about 900,000 people live in single-family zoned neighborhoods, compared to 3 million people who live in other zoned areas.

This is also perhaps why California ranks 49th out of 50 states in per capita housing, which is the number of people to a house.

“We have a shortage of housing. We have not been producing enough to keep up with population growth in the state,” affirmed Ned Resnikoff, policy manager at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco. He provided data that showed that the number of housing units per capita has been declining and the last estimate in 2016 put the state at 352 units per thousand people — much lower than the U.S. average of 419 housing units per capita.

Where you live matters. “Opportunity has a spatial footprint,” commented Gambhir. In single-family zoned areas, median incomes are higher, to the tune of $34,000 on average. That means that there’s more spending power. This breadth of opportunity includes schooling and student performances. “Students in high single-family zoned cities score nearly 15 percent higher in math and reading assessments in fourth grade,” said Gambhir. His analysis concluded that cities with high levels of single-family zoning have greater resources in virtually every statistic they measured.

Pink areas of the map show where San Francisco is zoned for single-family housing. (Courtesy Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley)

Pink areas of the map show where San Francisco is zoned for single-family housing. (Courtesy Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley)

So, then, you would argue, why would you change the zoning structure, when we know that single-family zoning creates better opportunities?

The answer lies in considering: Who is left behind, and at what cost?

Resnikoff mentioned a 2021 study led by Boston University professor Thomas Byrne that linked inequality to homelessness. It found evidence that as economic inequality increases in a particular area, if the housing supply does not also increase, then the wealthiest residents of the area outbid others, consequently raising the cost of housing for everyone else. Housing gradually becoming unaffordable leads to increased homelessness, among other social ills.

This study makes intuitive sense, but perhaps can also be extended. If homelessness is tied to income inequality, which is due to lack of low-income and affordable housing, which is connected to single-family zoning policies, then we must look to change these zoning policies.

Single-family zoning creates a “troubling pattern of social, economic and racial exclusion” Gambhir summarized. It creates opportunities for those with means and pushes others into a spiral of plummeting unaffordability.

There are several proposals and policies to address this inequity.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 9, which allows for duplexes — up to two units — to be built on parcels zoned for single-family housing. While this bill is a step in the right direction, it is unlikely to move the needle on the need of the moment: affordable and low-income housing.

According to a Terner Center for Housing Innovation Report, San Francisco has 94,500 single-family residences, of which 93,500 are eligible for SB 9, which will yield a net change of 8,500 “market feasible units.” In its conclusion, the report found that SB 9’s impact will be modest, unlocking “incrementally more units on parcels that are already financially feasible.”

Earlier this year, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman came up with a proposal for four-plexes on single-family home corner lots within half a mile of transit stops, which was later amended to four-plexes on any single-family lot. The proposal is in limbo, justifiably, since there was allegedly no consideration made for affordability. Supervisors Gordon Mar and Ahsha Safai are crafting their own proposals on increasing affordable housing stock in San Francisco.

The good news is that our local legislators are tossing around ideas. The goal is to find innovative solutions for more affordable homes that could increase the integration of class, race and ethnicity. This will not happen so long as existing homeowners lay claim to the land, and continue to create a legacy of opportunity for themselves while pushing others, particularly people of color and working-class families, out of homes and onto the street.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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