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NorCal Cities Explore Upzoning Measures To Reach Housing Goals

Neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes in San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento could see multifamily development in coming years if attempts to change zoning laws are passed.

The Bay Area is not keeping pace to build enough housing to meet the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s regional need determination. Between 2022 and 2030, the region is being asked to build 441,176 housing units, 57% of which would be for moderate to very-low-income residents. The greater Sacramento area, which also has a serious housing shortfall, needs 153,512 units. Facing this underperformance, cities are now exploring varying degrees of upzoning of single-family zoned areas to achieve higher density. 

If enacted, such legal changes could have a sweeping impact on neighborhoods. Up to 75% of residential land in the U.S. is strictly zoned for single-family homes, The New York Times reported. In San Jose, that figure is 94%.  

A single-family home in San Jose.

An October report from the Othering & Belonging Institute, Single-Family Zoning in the San Francisco Bay Area: Characteristics of Exclusionary Communities, examines the relationship between single-family zoning, racial segregation and classism. The report found that no Bay Area city with a population over 10,000, including San Francisco and Oakland, had less than 40% of residential land exclusively single-family zoned. It also found a correlation between single-family zoning and a higher level of resources like better schools and higher incomes. It advocated for the upzoning of areas to boost the housing supply and achieve a more equitable distribution of resources.

The city of Sacramento took the lead on the issue on Jan. 19 when the City Council approved work on the draft 2040 General Plan update that would allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built in any neighborhood. If the plan receives final approval, the change will take effect in late 2022 or early 2023. 

“Many of the city’s desirable neighborhoods are currently zoned for single-unit homes, a more expensive housing type,” acting Long-Range Planning Manager Matt Hertel said at the meeting. “In fact, 70% of Sacramento’s residential neighborhoods are zoned for single-family … The exclusion of lower-cost housing types prevents many residents from moving to neighborhoods with the best parks, schools and other desirable amenities.”

San Jose is also considering allowing multi-unit housing in single-family neighborhoods as part of its General Plan review. City Council is expected to review a proposal for the effort referred to as Opportunity Housing by late spring.

San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman recently proposed legislation to allow fourplexes to be built in districts zoned single-family contingent upon the site being within a half-mile of public transit, KQED reports. The measure is designed to target the city’s westside neighborhoods with lower densities while the southeastern neighborhoods have increasingly been densifying over the past decade. 

While the upzoning initiatives generally have strong support among affordable housing advocates, there is opposition from those concerned about limited parking supply, potentially losing green space and maintaining community character. In S.F., there is worry that despite the legislation, already dense neighborhoods will just continue to get denser, driving up the cost of housing in those areas.

"I think it's fair to be cautious about the unintended consequences of allowing densification in single-family areas, particularly when those areas are populated mostly by renters who are already at risk of displacement," University of California Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation Policy Director David Garcia told KQED.

Garcia added that a thoughtful proposal could stimulate housing production and benefit communities where higher proportions of people of color own homes by enabling them to add housing units to their property for rental income.