san diego zoning
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

In the closing months of his administration, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is pushing a major housing reform that would make it easier for developers to build taller buildings with rent-controlled apartments near transit, riling community groups.

What the plan would not do, though, is touch the vast swaths of the city in which the only development allowed is standalone homes with their own yard.

That omission is consistent with the city’s history of zoning, which was predicated above all on creating places reserved solely for single-family homes, excluding businesses, industrial activity and the multifamily homes affordable to low-income people and Black and Latino residents.

San Diego is not unique in that regard. Nationwide, single-family zoning was created just after the Supreme Court outlawed cities from adopting zoning plans that segregated areas explicitly by race. Historians and housing experts have outlined the ways in which the zoning we know today was adopted as a replacement that could achieve the same result, and it has persisted ever since.

In 1923, San Diego adopted its first zoning ordinance – six years after the Supreme Court outlawed racial districts, and three years before the court blessed the basic structure of zoning we know today. References to race – explicit or coded – were rare, but not unheard of, during the run-up to the city’s decision, according to newspaper coverage at the time.

The debate was instead driven by resident desires to create districts for nothing but single-family homes. In one instance, police suspected that single-family zoning advocates committed arson against a Mission Hills property owner who tried to build a business in a district they wanted to restrict for homes only.

Today, in 70 percent of the areas in which it is legal to build housing, it is only legal to build single-family homes. Even within half a mile of transit stations – the areas eyed for increased development potential by Faulconer’s new proposal, which applies only where apartments or townhomes are already allowed – over half of residential land is reserved exclusively for single-family homes.

Leaving single family-zoned areas untouched by his so-called Complete Communities proposal was a missed opportunity for Faulconer and the city, said Ricardo Flores, executive director of LISC San Diego, a nonprofit group that funds affordable housing.

“For someone termed out, looking for a legacy beyond California, to have thought about this and done something about it, it would have been profound,” he said. “It would have been leadership. People talk about structural racism: This is structural racism. A white Republican mayor in a liberal town, saying racism and segregation are embedded in our land-use laws, and it needs to change? He’d be on the cover of the New York Times.”

Along with leaders of other anti-poverty groups in the city, Flores has formed San Diego 50, an organization urging the city to reform its century-long deference to single-family zoning, by letting homeowners divide their property into multiple, smaller lots to make way for more housing.

But their push comes just as President Donald Trump has entered the fray, promising to “protect the suburbs” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that villainized a failed state bill after which Flores’ group named itself – SB 50 – that would have overhauled single-family zoning across the state.

City and state leaders, though, continue to have robust debates about the best way to address the exclusionary nature of single-family zoning, and the racial and income segregation it has perpetuated.

Faulconer’s administration, for instance, argues it has already started dismantling the basis of single-family zoning in recent years by making it easier to build accessory units, or granny flats, on single-family lots. The city has gone beyond state mandates in liberalizing its granny flat regulations, and the City Council could this year move those policies forward yet again.

“I do think that’s an issue we need to take head on,” said Mike Hansen, Faulconer’s director of planning. “There’s a legacy we’re grappling with from decisions made over many decades.”

San Diego state Sen. Toni Atkins has also proposed a bill, SB 1120, that is similar to the city-level fix Flores is pushing. It would let property owners split any single-family lot in two, or build a duplex on it, without asking for special permission.

Other cities, meanwhile, have already moved forward. Seattle and Minneapolis each ended single-family zoning last year, for instance, and Portland has adopted what one housing advocacy group called “the best low-density zoning reform in U.S. history.” That measure would let anyone build four homes on any single-family lot, and up to six if they reserve some for low-income residents.

Paavo Monkkonen, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, analyzed the potential impact of a reform like Portland’s applied across California, and found it could create nearly twice as many homes as the state’s most aggressive granny flat reforms.

“The legacy of segregation, and land-use segregation, takes a lot more than fourplexes to overcome, and this isn’t an explicitly race-based proposition,” he said. “That would need to be handled by reparations of some sort. But it’s a step in the right direction, and it could open the door to more change.”

San Diego is likely to take more steps on granny flat reform this year, but it’s unclear whether the city will pick up Flores’ proposal allowing for lot splits, or something more aggressive. And while Atkins’ bill is still alive, major housing measures have fared poorly in Sacramento for a year now.

A Brief History of Zoning in San Diego

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

That exclusionary zoning has led to racial segregation, and was often an explicit intention of the practice, is not an especially obscure view in urban planning.

“The origins of single-family zoning in America are not benign: Many housing codes used density as a proxy for separating people by income and race,” wrote Jenny Schuetz, an expert in urban economics and housing, in a Brookings piece arguing for “gentle density” reforms that would put more homes on single-family lots.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, for instance, found that early American zoning differed from its European predecessor in two fundamental ways: race and class prejudice, and an abiding belief in the supremacy of single-family homes.

Regardless of intent, the result of zoning in the century since its widespread adoption has been racial segregation, according to a 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. In the country’s 25 largest metro areas, authors found low-density zoning significantly reduced rental housing, which limited Black and Hispanic residents.

In its 1917 Buchanan v. Warley ruling, which W.E.B. DuBois later credited with “the breaking of the back bone of segregation,” the Supreme Court struck down a law that prevented a Black person from buying property on a block that was more than 50 percent white.

In the years that followed, cities began adopting ordinances that instead split land into economic zones, with distinct areas for industrial activity, commercial businesses, multifamily housing and single-family housing. San Diego followed the trend by adopting its first zoning ordinance in 1923, following months of debate, including over the city attorney’s belief that it was illegal.

During the city’s debate, overt racist intent – even through dog whistles – was uncommon, but not unheard of. Mostly, zoning’s vocal proponents focused on the necessity of creating districts of nothing but single-family homes, separate from businesses and industry, but also lower-income flats, apartments and bungalow courts.

Carol Aronovici, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, traveled to San Diego often for lectures, arguing that an economic zoning ordinance could allow the city to become “the playground of the continent,” while housing 1 million people.

One of his speeches, in July 1921, brought about 1,200 people to Balboa Park, “a crowd larger than that of opening day.” In it, he condemned the existence of apartments.

“An apartment can never be a home,” he said, according to the San Diego Union. “It is merely a place to store the family overnight. Everything about an apartment is collapsible – collapsible bed, collapsible table, collapsible piano – everything is collapsible but the baby. And in most apartments there isn’t room for a baby. Because we are a nation of apartment dwellers, our very home life is quickly becoming collapsible.”

That sort of classist justification was also common in early zoning arguments, Richard Rothstein wrote in “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

“Certainly, an important and perhaps primary motivation of zoning rules that kept apartment buildings out of single-family neighborhoods was a social class elitism that was not itself racially biased,” he wrote. “Such economic zoning was rare in the United States before World War I, but the Buchanan decision provoked urgent interest in zoning as a way to circumvent the ruling.”

Typically, zoning proponents framed their concerns around the importance of separating homes and businesses. But race and class were not always left out of the discussion. The San Diego Union, in a June 1922 editorial, argued that a section of Chicago had just been “ruined” by the “invasion” of a “class” of citizens who had already lived in the area. In 1923, the San Diego Realty board asked the city  “to put teeth into” its recently adopted zoning ordinance, describing the purpose of zoning as “preventing the encroachment of alien and conflicting interests upon each other, by segregating by classification all industries, factories, commercial activities and races in the general interest of assimilation and similarities.”

Opponents of the measure mostly railed against the government telling them what they could build, and argued that single-family zones would crush their property values. When La Jolla tried to implement a single-family zone in 1924, for instance, one property owner said it was “the most vicious, unfair and iniquitous measure ever attempted to be throttled upon a community.”

“But I trust that I am too fair minded to favor a measure which would prevent a hard working widow from building an extra bungalow on a 50×147-foot lot to help pay her living expenses by renting same; which would prohibit the building of flats, apartments or hotels along our ocean front,” the property owner wrote.

The private company selling homes in Loma Portal, meanwhile, jumped into the debate with an ad in the Evening Tribune, lending its support for a zoning ordinance but assuring would-be buyers the neighborhood “already has one,” because every deed sold protected the neighborhood from anything but single-family homes.

“The owner of a Loma Portal home is amply safeguarded,” the ad read.

Nearly identical to one from Los Angeles, the city’s final ordinance enabled a majority of owners in an area to ask for permission to create their own zone. By the end of 1923 the city was refusing to grant a University Heights zone because an appeals court ruled against Los Angeles’s zoning plan. San Diego was in legal limbo until Los Angeles prevailed at the state Supreme Court in February of 1925.

A year later the U.S. Supreme Court, in Euclid v. Ambler, blessed zoning as a constitutional practice, enabling its further spread across the country.

“From the beginning, most of these zoning ordinances shared a common goal: the preservation, above all else, of the single-family neighborhood,” wrote Bill Fulton and Paul Shigley in “Guide to California Planning,” the state’s pre-eminent planning textbook.

That’s because in practice, zoning did not strictly separate areas – except for single-family homes. Anything could be built in industrial areas – standalone homes, apartments, businesses or factories. Then commercial areas prohibited industrial uses, but allowed everything else. The only thing allowed in single-family zones was single-family houses.

The selective exclusion of zoning had a twin effect: Black families were kept out of single-family neighborhoods because lower-income families could not afford the homes there, and homes they could afford were often built near polluting businesses that were also restricted from going elsewhere.

What to Do Now

A bird’s eye view of North Park / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
A bird’s eye view of North Park / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The mayor’s Complete Communities plan is the culmination of a promise he made in his State of the City address in 2019 to make way for new housing that could help the city meet its goal of having half of people who live near bus or trolley stations commute by bike, walking or transit by 2035.

In practice, it’s a voluntary program, in which developers agree to build some low-income homes, some middle-income homes and chip in for outdoor amenities, and the city lets them exceed current development restrictions. They could build taller buildings with more homes depending on their proximity to downtown.

But the program is available only on properties that already allow apartments. That leaves roughly half of all residential land in so-called Transit Priority Areas untouched by the new program, according to data provided by the city’s planning department.

“Do I think that the city intentionally left single-family zones off the table? I do not. I think that because of biases, and not having inclusion at the table, it can create this situation where everything is not looked at, because the lens is not inclusive,” said Donna DeBerry, CEO of the Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce, part of the San Diego 50 coalition.

Excluding single-family areas near transit from the program might be politically wise, said Monkkonen, the UCLA professor, but exacerbates the problems of single-family zoning – especially low-density neighborhoods in high-income areas. The collective benefit of allowing more people to live near transit should outweigh the concerns of people who live in those neighborhoods and don’t want them to change.

“Upzoning low-density neighborhoods that are low-income can be problematic, unlike upzoning low-density areas that are high-income,” he said.

Hansen said the city left single-family zones untouched for a simple reason: It meant they could pass Complete Communities more quickly. Since apartments are already allowed in the areas in which it applies, the city can adopt the measure without going through a formal “re-zoning” process, which would trigger state-mandated studies that could take years to complete.

Instead, he said Faulconer has opted to break up exclusionary neighborhoods by pushing granny flat reforms.

“It’s not in this initiative, but there are other initiatives on top of this,” he said.

Property owners can right now build granny flats on single-family lots. That has already, to some extent, broken up the strict exclusion of single-family zones.

The state last year passed a series of laws entitling every single-family lot in the state to build two secondary homes on the property, essentially allowing three homes on each single-family lot. It led one Sacramento housing advocate to boast that the laws “effectively ended single-family zoning in California.”

San Diego is in the process of implementing that change. Faulconer’s planning department has also decided to exceed the state requirement, and the Planning Commission this week will consider its proposal to allow property owners to build one additional granny flat on their property for every granny flat reserved for low-income residents. Those restrictions would be even more permissive on single-family lots located within transit priority areas, the areas near bus or trolley stations where the Complete Communities program is available, where there would be no limit on the number of potential bonus granny flats an owner could build.

The San Diego 50 proposal, though, functions somewhat differently. It would allow owners of single-family lots to subdivide their property into multiple smaller lots, potentially creating new homes and new homeowners.

Why would it matter? Flores draws a hypothetical: Imagine someone owns a single home on a single lot worth $600,000. Divided into four properties, none of them would be worth $600,000 anymore. “The market will laugh if you tried to sell them for that,” Flores said. But if the owner sold them for $200,000 each, she could make more money, even while creating four homes worth less than the one that was there initially. “This is how you get middle-class housing,” Flores said.

“Our goal is to create generational wealth,” DeBerry said. “This breaks down barriers, not just for home ownership but for Black contractors and architects to be able to bid on construction. The end result is, this creates wealth, it allows Blacks to start building wealth, which we have never been able to do.”

The coalition of seven anti-poverty groups sent a letter to Councilwomen Monica Montgomery and Vivian Moreno, and Council President Georgette Gómez, in July, after meeting with them to discuss the proposal, asking them to support the plan in writing.

“Exclusionary zoning, like single-family zoning, is used as a planning tool by local cities around the nation to segregate Black, Brown and poor residents from wealthier and whiter neighborhoods,” the letter read.

None of Montgomery, Moreno or Gómez agreed to an interview to discuss whether they planned to carry the proposal in City Hall, and they have not responded to San Diego 50’s letter.

Flores said the city needs to pursue multiple proposals at once. He supports the Complete Communities plan, and thinks the city should adopt his proposal to allow subdivision of single-family lots. He hopes voters approve a November ballot measure to raise property taxes for low-income housing. And he thinks it’s time the city implements a serious rent control measure. All of the above.

“We aren’t paying this game of, wink-wink, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’” he said. “Our coalition, what we realize is, there is nobody coming to save poor people. They can argue they’re trying to save poor people, but they aren’t.”

Hansen doesn’t think Flores’ proposal is legal right now. By his read, Atkins’ legislation would need to pass first, giving cities the authority to let single-family property owners subdivide their lots. The group Flores runs, LISC San Diego, though, threw its support behind Atkins’ proposal, too, urging local legislatures to vote for it to end a law that’s “created an apartheid” in San Diego.

An analysis last month by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation said Atkins’ legislation could be “a powerful tool for creating new, small-scale housing throughout California,” and that 93 percent of single-family lots in San Diego would be eligible for a split. It found problems, though, and concluded that many eligible lots wouldn’t work, because of logistical issues with its requirement that lots be split equally.

That’s a recurring problem among state legislative changes aimed at addressing the housing crisis, said Monkkonen, the UCLA professor.

Zoning changes are just the starting point of creating new housing. After zoning dictates what can legally be built, developers need to determine what can be built while turning a profit. And only a fraction of the properties where development is both legal and economically feasible are likely to be made available by their owner with any sort of frequency. And other local factors, like labor availability and additional development restrictions beyond zoning, will decrease production even further. As a result, only a small portion of a city’s “zoned capacity” ever turns into actual housing.

But it’s even considering all of those factors that Monkkonen found a state law allowing fourplexes on single-family lots could produce 2.7 million new homes, and 1.2 million more than allowed by the state’s newly liberalized granny flat restrictions.

“A big problem for California is, we have never allowed single-family neighborhoods to change, and so people are overly concerned about what would happen if we did,” he said. “Once we let more happen, and results aren’t bad, it could happen quicker.”

In basic terms, as a block went from nothing but single-family homes to three- and fourplexes, it would become more available to people with lower incomes.

“Single-family zoning subsidizes the overconsumption of housing,” Monkkonen said. “Holistically, this will relieve some gentrification pressure. The worst part of low-density housing is that once a desirable area is built out, people start looking elsewhere to still be close to jobs.”

Priced out of the desirable neighborhood, they bid up prices in the nearby low-income neighborhood, potentially displacing existing residents.

“This won’t reach low-income people, but it will reach middle-income people and that benefits gentrifying areas,” he said.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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