Editor’s Note: This piece won an award for Explanatory Journalism (print/online small division) from The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter during the 35th Annual Excellence in Journalism Awards.

Out on the western edge of San Francisco rises an anomaly. Just a block from the Pacific Ocean an unfinished five-story, 56-unit condominium building pokes its head above a sea of single-family homes in the city’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. When completed, The Westerly will be the first multifamily development in the area since 2005.

As San Francisco struggles with a housing crisis that’s pushed rents on new apartments to the highest level in the nation, this neighborhood that encompasses almost a tenth of the city’s land has added just 28 new housing units over the last 14 years. One important reason: 73 percent of the Outer Sunset is zoned for single-family homes. So is 75 percent of the San Francisco Bay Area, 81 percent of Seattle, and 94 percent of San Jose, California.

zoning- residential land maps; Urban Footprint
Image source: Urban Footprint

As in many single-family-dominant neighborhoods around the country, residents combat any attempts to add density. Neighborhood groups complain about increased competition for on-street parking, protest the shadows new buildings will cast on nearby schools and parks, file objections, appeal approvals, and push for environmental impact reports even though a preponderance of research shows that densifying cities slices greenhouse gas emissions.

But now that places like Minneapolis and Oregon have overridden single-family zoning laws to allow more density, cities throughout the United States are starting to confront the history and impacts of the old rules for residential development. In an effort to segregate cities started over a century ago, municipal, state, and federal governments enacted apartheid-like policies that allocated massive swaths of land to single-family homes exclusively for white families and made it very difficult for African Americans to live anywhere but relatively small pockets of land within cities. Addressing the damage caused by those policies over multiple generations will be a long and challenging process for the communities that choose to undertake it.

“We’re at a turning point in U.S. urban history,” says Paavo Monkkonen, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There are very few single-family neighborhoods that have suddenly allowed apartment buildings. We don’t really have a model for that kind of zoning change.”

Increasing density may help ease the housing shortage. But without including measures to reduce segregation, increase equity, and lift up disadvantaged communities it is likely to replicate existing disparities, equity planners point out. What can help, advocates say: building more public and cooperative housing, increasing housing subsidies so those hurt by segregationist policies can afford to live in what are now known as “high opportunity” areas, and investing more heavily in urban amenities like parks and schools.

Critics of affordable housing, especially in expensive cities, often ask why those who can’t afford the high rents should be entitled to live there. But that question ignores the fact that there aren’t many places for those renters to go. Every single state and major metro area has a shortage of available, affordable homes for extremely low-income renters, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. To afford a modest, two-bedroom rental home in the U.S., a full-time worker needs to earn an average hourly wage of almost $23 – more than three times the federal minimum wage.

“Increasingly, leaders recognize equity as one of the major challenges they must address,” writes Lisa K. Bates, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University, in a chapter she authored in Advancing Equity Planning Now, a book showcasing urban planning policies that focus on enhancing the lives of the disadvantaged by equitably distributing resources.

Sequestering land for white homeowners

Fights over preserving the character of suburban neighborhoods dominated by single family houses have their roots in racist zoning policies that sequestered much of the land surrounding cities for white families. This development pattern grew so large that by 2010, a majority of Americans lived in suburbs. Those policies contributed significantly to sprawling, polluted metros and multi-billion dollar wealth disparities. The current housing crisis presents both a high-contrast snapshot of the logical consequence of such policies and an opportunity to rethink how we use, share, and distribute the benefits of our cities. 

“The inflexibility of our zoning with respect to single family neighborhoods is a huge problem,” says Monkkonen. “By living next to each other we’ve created all of these collective benefits, and we’ve made the land arbitrarily valuable because it’s inside the middle of this collective enterprise. Single-family zoning has restricted the benefits of that land to a few people, so it’s a huge part of inequality and social immobility.”

Single-family zoning grew from efforts to find a way around a 1917 Supreme Court ruling that struck down zoning based explicitly on race. Step one was to establish a nominally non-racial zoning category – detached, single-family homes built on large lots to keep prices higher and therefore inaccessible to nearly all African Americans.

Step two was to lure white families into single-family suburbs from urban apartments using propaganda and subsidies. African Americans could then be segregated from these areas with tools like restrictive covenants to keep whites from selling to them and denial of federal subsidies to any developer who tried to open their suburban properties up to African Americans. Legal scholar Ernst Freund noted at the time that “zoning masquerading as an economic measure” was the best way to achieve segregation, recounts Richard Rothstein in “The Color of Law,” his book on the history of U.S. segregationist housing policies.

“People sometimes get upset when we talk about that because they don’t want to feel like they are part of a racist system, but they definitely are part of the legacy of a racist system,” says Monkkonen.

The results of our almost century-long experiment with single-family zoning read like a litany of urban ills. Clogged streets. Ever-lengthening commutes. Pollution so pervasive it inspired a new word – smog. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Segregated neighborhoods. Massive inequality in distribution of wealth. Damaged public health. Racial disparities in access to education and public services ranging from parks to libraries to reliable and affordable transportation options.

But now we might be on the verge of something different. 

On October 9, California passed AB 68, a law that overrides single-family zoning in the state by allowing up to three in-law units on all lots once reserved for single family homes. Earlier this year, Oregon struck down bans on duplexes in all cities with more than 10,000 residents. Last December, Minneapolis led the way by banning single-family zoning citywide. Charlotte, Philadelphia, and other jurisdictions are considering following suit.

Turning garages into housing

California’s first law legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as in-law units, took effect in 2017. The following year, Los Angeles issued permits for 4,171 ADUs — more than 35 times the number permitted two years earlier. 

If every single-family homeowner in Los Angeles converted their garage into an apartment, about 400,000 new homes could be created, researchers noted in a recent CityLab article. San Francisco has about 75,000 parcels reserved for single-family homes, many of which have garages that can be converted. In San Jose, where single-family homes make up two-thirds of housing units but cover 94 percent of the land, more than 120,000 homes have room for ADUs. Mayor Sam Liccardo has already declared his intent to shave almost 20 business days off the approval process and take other measures to make San Jose the state’s most ADU-friendly city.

Zoning- San Francisco map
Image source: SPUR

That’s more than 600,000 potential new homes, in just three of California’s high-demand cities – enough to make a serious dent in the state’s housing crisis, and possibly prompt other municipalities to sit up and take notice.

The demand has inspired new businesses. A number of companies specializing in garage conversions, including a prefab ADU company, offer to handle the full permitting and construction process for homeowners in exchange for a percentage of rents. Homeowners who don’t need to borrow to convert their garages can achieve returns as high as 25 percent, ADU researchers estimate. Of course, not everyone who has the option will add an in-law unit, but with innovations like this making it so much easier for owners to generate additional income from their property, the incentives start to shift.

Mending damage to African American households

Upzoning single family areas may make a dent in the housing crisis. It might even ease some of the traffic and environmental problems that come with low-density sprawl. However, without inclusionary measures of any kind, upzoning could create an even bigger financial windfall for homeowners, who are disproportionately white. And it can’t make up for the economic damage done to African American and other minority communities that have been blocked for decades from home ownership, the biggest wealth building engine for white families.

Of course, exclusionary zoning ordinances were just one part of a panoply of racist policies that prevented huge numbers of African American families from getting ahead financially. As just one example, lenders were barred from approving mortgages in entire neighborhoods populated by minorities from the 1930s until the late 1960s because of federal policies that supported an industry-standard practice known as “redlining” for the maps that color coded such areas red. 

White builders inserted restrictive covenants into deeds to prohibit future white owners from selling those homes to anyone of another race. These restrictions were required by Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and enforced by the courts. The FHA instructed its agents that in order “to assure a homogeneous and harmonious neighborhood,” properties should include deed restrictions to prohibit their occupancy by anyone “except by the race for which they are intended,” Rothstein notes in “The Color of Law.”

Even today, land use policies are heavily influenced by race. Andrew Whittemore, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studied zoning decisions in nearby Durham. He found that prior to the mid-1980s, when local lawmakers were mostly white, city leaders were more apt to increase density in African American than white neighborhoods, even when the areas were facing similar problems. Once a critical mass of African American leaders joined the city council, they began reversing these zoning disparities. 

A separate study in Virginia found that complaints about new housing increased when the county became more racially diverse. “It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from ‘I’m worried about my property values’ to ‘I don’t want those people in my neighborhood,’” Whittemore says.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, argues that the damage done by zoning policies goes so deep we should rectify it with a national Economic Fair Housing Act. “[S]kyrocketing levels of income segregation in housing [are] compounding racial segregation,” he writes in a 2017 report laying out his case. He proposes banning exclusionary zoning by withholding infrastructure funds or limiting the mortgage interest tax deduction of homeowners in municipalities that refuse to repeal such zoning laws.

The evidence is clear that the nation’s racist housing policies crippled African American families from building wealth for themselves or future generations. Median net worth in 2016 for African American households was $12,920, less than a tenth of the $143,600 held by white households, whose wealth was due in part to much higher homeownership rates, according to Census Department data. In Chicago alone, African American families lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contracts that were in most cases their only option up until the 1960s. Taking the $130,680 gap between African American and white wealth and multiplying it by the roughly 17 million African American households in the U.S. offers a glimpse at the staggering amount of wealth those families missed out on over the years: more than $2.2 trillion.

This is the very definition of structural racism. 

Mitigating displacement and gentrification

These days, though, fighting racism is sometimes equated with fighting new housing. In expensive cities like San Francisco, residents often object to new apartment or condo complexes, even in already-dense neighborhoods, on the grounds that adding market-rate housing will bring gentrification – basically, rising rents – and displace longtime residents. In the Bay Area, rising housing costs have prompted many low-income households of color to move to the region’s outer areas, creating new concentrations of segregation and poverty, according to a University of California, Berkeley report.

But planners point out that stasis doesn’t always equal stability.

“The best way to ensure that housing values are going to increase, and that neighborhoods will gentrify is not doing anything at all,” says Whittemore. “In California, though, with density bonus legislation, inclusionary zoning, there are lots of ways to make sure that there are new affordable units provided within new housing.”

Portland, Oregon, where Bates of Portland State calculated that about a third of the region’s African American population has been displaced over the past decade, incorporated equity considerations into its strategic plan in 2012. It brought together city staffers and community groups to hammer out guidelines on how to ensure low-income, minority, and other vulnerable communities wouldn’t be excluded from the benefits of new development. 

Community activists aren’t “out here saying upzoning causes displacement, shut it all down,” she tells Shareable contributor Ben Schneider. “Instead, they’re advocating ‘place specific mitigation’ and equity investments in neighborhoods being upzoned.”

Another way to facilitate equity is ensuring there’s variety in the available housing, notes Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago. “You can’t overtly do something like zoning for race, but what you can do is open up zoning so you are ensuring that all the zones you create in a city have a diversity of housing types and price points and unit types that cater to different kinds of families and different kinds of lifestyles,” she says. “It’s very much about opening up from a narrow conception of what housing is about and what kinds of housing units should be allowed and just relaxing those rules.”

Inclusionary zoning ordinances in Portland and other cities are another step toward equity. They require developers to reserve a certain percentage of units – often 10 percent, but in some cases as high as 30 percent – for affordable housing. Community land trusts, demolition taxes, vacancy taxes, rent controls and stronger tenant protections are other tools activists and municipalities are using to address housing inequities.

In Oakland, California, local activists concerned about displacement of African Americans and other communities of color in 2017 founded the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (East Bay PREC), an innovative twist on traditional housing cooperatives that includes the ability to raise capital from outside investors. East Bay PREC’s vision is to create permanently affordable housing controlled by the community. While outside capital gives the organization a powerful lever for expansion, its governance structure prioritizes resident, staff and community owners over investor owners.

“We were trying to figure out a concept that couldn’t be corrupted, that could build wealth from different angles and that could be authentically controlled by community, so we are an investment co-op,” Executive Director Noni Session told The Mercury News last year. “This is a way for people to divest their money from Wells Fargo and invest in their community and get a return at about the same rate one might get from their checking account.”

Adding density equitably

A cooperative housing project built in San Francisco by the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the 1960s is an example of another tool: limited equity housing cooperatives, which ensure affordability by limiting the amount of equity members can earn on resale of their units. St. Francis Square, built on three blocks set aside for affordable housing when much of the Fillmore District was razed and the then-predominantly African-American populace was displaced, shows how density can be increased both affordably and equitably.

Zoning - St Francis Square Cooperative
Image of the St Francis Square Cooperative provided by Liz Enochs

Susan Solomon, president of the San Francisco teacher’s union, has lived at the three-story complex of 12 buildings both as a child and an adult. She was nine when her parents moved the family into a three-bedroom unit down the street from an elementary school later renamed for Rosa Parks. Down payments for three-bedrooms were $610, and a family of four could only qualify for an apartment if they earned $8,200 or less annually

The multi-ethnic complex was designed in part to prevent the erasure of the African-American community that was happening all around them in the Fillmore. The union — led by legendary labor leader Harry Bridges, who fought to integrate African American workers into the ILWU in the 1930s — drew up policies to ensure the 299-unit development would be diversified so that it matched the racial makeup of the city’s population. 

“It was meant to be a true reflection of San Francisco,” Solomon, sporting a dress covered in a bright sharpened-colored-pencils pattern, says at a living-room table in her book-lined apartment on a foggy October day. Her extended family believed so strongly in the co-op’s mission that her grandparents and an aunt and uncle also moved into apartments at the Square, as current and former residents often call it. “They all sold houses to live in this community,” she says. 

The U.S. already has 155,000 limited equity housing cooperatives, a number that could be expanded to increase the number of permanently affordable housing units.   

Combating climate change with upzoning

When her son and daughter were growing up, they would often visit Solomon’s sister’s children in a big hilltop suburban house 20 miles south. “My kids felt sorry for their cousins,” she says with a slight grin, “because they were so isolated.” Solomon’s children, who “learned to Muni very well,” felt liberated, in contrast. They lived in a centrally located neighborhood and didn’t need their parents to drive them around because they could take Muni, San Francisco’s public transit system, to wherever they wanted to go.

The Square’s garden apartments were built with parking spaces for residents, but they likely wouldn’t be if they were constructed now. San Francisco has gradually eliminated the parking requirements many cities impose on multifamily developments as it tries to restrain rising construction costs and push residents to use public transit or other alternatives to private automobiles. 

Why eliminate parking? Suburban-style, car-centric planning imposes high health and environmental costs, which tend to burden most heavily the very populations often excluded from single-family neighborhoods.

Pollution from the traffic on busy roads – which could affect up to 45 percent of urban residents in the U.S. – has cascading health effects that range from asthma attacks and impaired lung function to premature death, according to the American Lung Association. “Traffic-related air pollution is an environmental justice issue because low-income and minority populations are disproportionately concentrated near high traffic volume roadways,” concludes a research paper in Environmental Justice magazine. Zoning ordinances have confined African Americans and other minorities to industrial and high-traffic areas for decades.

Residents of single-family neighborhoods often have little choice but to drive when they leave home because they live in areas that aren’t built for bicycling or near mass transit. That has a huge impact on the climate. Transportation generates 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector, including electricity — and most of it comes from cars.

A committee of the nonprofit Transportation Research Board investigated how more compact development patterns could affect carbon emissions. It found that driving could be slashed by as much as 25 percent by doubling residential density in metropolitan areas if we also implemented other measures like improving transit and job access. That could cut carbon emissions by as much as 8 percent by 2030 and 11 percent by 2050, according to the most aggressive scenarios.

Envisioning a new, more equitable land use system

Although local land-use regulations remain one of the most significant barriers to more compact development, the housing crisis is starting to take a hammer to these policies. In the last few years, new zoning laws in Minneapolis, Oregon and elsewhere have opened a pathway to change. But it will take more than building a bunch of in-law units in single-family neighborhoods, says Monkkonen of UCLA: “We can do better than that.” 

In a housing policy brief analyzing California’s affordability problems, he proposes four steps that can be taken to reduce resistance to new housing and increased density. First, the state can use carrots, such as infrastructure investment, and sticks, like legal action, to ensure cities build enough housing to meet their legally required targets. 

Second, local leaders need to make the planning process, which is structurally biased toward wealthy homeowners, more inclusive so that other voices get heard when new developments are considered. Third, local planners ought to be aggressively sharing relevant information such as the capacity of sewer and water lines, and nonpartisan analysis to help inform public debates around planning and new development.

Fourth, state lawmakers should shift some aspects of land use decisions up to the regional or state level, where competing neighborhood or city interests can be considered in a more holistic way. “There is evidence that when higher levels of government control land use decisions, rules are less exclusionary and reduce socioeconomic segregation,” he says. 

“Opposition to new housing and increasing densities in urban neighborhoods of California is one of the state’s major policy challenges in the 21st Century, because of the negative social, economic, and environmental [consequences] of a lack of housing supply near productive employment centers,” Monkkonen writes. Urban areas around the country are grappling with similar issues.

Should politicians, activists, and urban residents take his prescriptions to heart, the cities that result would certainly be denser, but it’s unlikely San Francisco would end up looking like Hong Kong. Maybe just less like Phoenix — and with a lot more residents benefiting from all the wealth it generates.


This post is part of our Fall 2019 editorial series on land use and housing policy challenges and solutions. Download our latest FREE ebook based on this series: “How Racism Shaped the Housing Crisis & What We Can Do About It.”

Or take a look at the other articles in the series:

Liz Enochs


Liz Enochs |

Liz Enochs is an award-winning economic, financial, and legal journalist with 15+ years of experience at major outlets including Bloomberg News and Red Herring magazine. She covers the intersection between sustainability, social justice and