August 21, 2020

San Jose Mercury News: Single-family housing in the Bay Area linked to more racially segregated cities


A new report from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute shows the connection between exclusive single-family zoning and racial segregation. The City of San Jose has the opportunity to expand housing choice in the 4-year General Plan Review going on now, by expanding residential zoning to allow duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. Mathew Reed, Policy Manager with SV@Home, said of this Opportunity Housing, “Nobody is forcing anybody to convert their home into anything they don’t want it to be converted into,” he said. “There’s no mandate that neighborhoods convert to all apartments.” The Opportunity Housing proposal would help San Jose take advantage of underutilized land by adding moderate density throughout various neighborhoods. 


BY: Leonardo Castañeda ┃Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: August 21, 2020 9:50 am


With California cities under mounting pressure to boost housing density, a new report suggests that coveted single-family neighborhoods may be a key driver of racial segregation in the Bay Area.

The University of California, Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute found that single-family zoning typically leads to more expensive homes, while costs are lower in denser communities, locking out many middle and low-income families. That, in turn, helps exclude many residents of color with less wealth, creating more racially segregated neighborhoods, said Stephen Menendian, the report’s co-author.

“It separates people from life-enhancing resources — from jobs, from good schools, from infrastructure and transit, from neighborhood amenities, and parks and safety,” he said.

The report comes as state legislators debate multiple bills that would make it easier to build denser and more affordable housing to alleviate California’s housing crisis, including one that would speed up the process of turning single-family homes into duplexes and another that would allow up to four-units on some lots now zoned for a single home. Meanwhile, city officials from Marin to Lafayette to San Jose are facing often contentious debates about efforts to add more homes in their cities.

The new data, which Menendian says is the most detailed analysis ever complied of the region’s housing, found that 83 percent of the five-county Bay Area’s residential land is zoned for single-family housing. Piedmont, Lafayette, Hillsborough, Los Altos and Cupertino are among the cities where between 91 percent and 100 percent of residential land is limited to one home per parcel. Those cities also tend to be wealthier and more racially homogenous — the share of white residents in Piedmont is more than twice as high as in Alameda County overall. Cupertino has nearly double the share of Asian American residents as Santa Clara County, said the report, which noted that the trends also hold true in cities with Asian majorities.

Even in Berkeley, which along with Emeryville is one of just two cities where less than half the residential land is single-family, standalone homes were concentrated in the wealthier, whiter northern part of the city, the report said. San Francisco is 51 percent single-family, with many of its denser buildings in the Mission and Richmond districts. And San Jose is 84 percent single-family, with much of the city’s denser housing in Japantown and downtown. A New York Times analysis last year put the amount of San Jose’s residential land zoned for single-family housing at 94 percent.

In Oakland, where 64 percent of residential land is zoned single-family, denser housing is located in heavily Black and Latinx communities in east and west Oakland, while the whiter Oakland Hills are predominantly single-family homes.

“The Bay Area is one of the most diverse places in the entire world,” said Menendian. “And yet, Oakland is one of the most segregated places in California.”

To increase community diversity, the report proposes changes that include the development of more affordable housing, which Menendian and others say can only happen with more density in more neighborhoods.

The findings follow a long history of housing segregation in the U.S., experts said, going back to racial covenants and redlining that explicitly or implicitly locked out non-white homeowners.

“In fact, single-family home zoning was invented specifically to keep black people and low-income people out of communities,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, a strong backer of zoning reforms. Wiener’s controversial SB50, which has twice failed, would have forced cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes on land currently zoned only for single-family homes and approve larger apartment buildings near transit stops and job hubs. Wiener’s current bill, SB 902 would allow property owners throughout California to build moderately denser housing depending on their city’s size.

Susan Kirsch, the founder of Livable California, which has opposed efforts to increase housing density in the state, said redlining and racial covenants were a “despicable mark on our history.” But, she said, single-family homes still hold a special place in Californians’ psyche.

“The vision and the goal and the dream of having a single-family home is still what lingers in so many people’s hearts,” she said. “If given the opportunity, most people would have a little plot they could call their own and a home that’s an investment.”

She doesn’t think the solution is to build denser housing in single-family neighborhoods. Instead, she’d like to see a focus on expanding home ownership the way the U.S. did after World War II, with cheap mortgages that helped many families buy homes in the 1940s and 1950s.

In San Jose, a task force of community leaders, advocates and elected officials is considering changes to the city’s 2040 general plan that would allow up to a quadruplex on at least some lots currently limited to a single unit. Mathew Reed, with SV@Home, said the proposal, dubbed Opportunity Housing, would help the city take advantage of underutilized land by adding moderate density throughout various neighborhoods.

“Nobody is forcing anybody to convert their home into anything they don’t want it to be converted into,” he said. “There’s no mandate that neighborhoods convert to all apartments.”

Still, the idea raised a red flag for Robert Wright, who lives in a Victorian house in the Julian St. James neighborhood. His two-story house had been a triplex since the 1930s, he said, but when he and his wife bought it they tore down the internal walls to turn it into a single-family home. A retired teacher, he said, he’s concerned about racial segregation but worries denser housing would “degrade” neighborhoods such as Naglee Park, south of where he lives.

“I don’t know what the answer is but there’s got to be a better way.”

Wright’s opposition to denser housing in his San Jose neighborhood has made him bedfellows with one rather uncomfortable partner for the self-described liberal: President Donald Trump, who has decried efforts led by Wiener and others to build “low income housing” in suburban communities.

“It’s an absolute nightmare for me to say anything that is so close to what Trump has been saying about the invasion of the suburbs,” Wright said. “There’s a very embarrassing and disturbing parallel.”