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Why eliminating single-family zoning is a terrible idea

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By Dan Cornford

On May 20, the Housing Element Committee voted in favor of 10 recommendations, one of which was the elimination of R1 (aka Single Family Housing, or SFH) zoning. Neither the Planning Commission nor the City Council weighed in on this recommendation as a body in their recent meetings concerning the Draft Housing Element, although some members of both bodies expressed interest in pursuing at least some weakening of R1 zoning. On the state level, SB 9 and SB 10 would eliminate R1 zoning.

Is this a good idea? Will it lead to affordable housing? Would it be good for the environment?

In short: No, no, and no.

Here are five reasons why eliminating R1 zoning is a bad idea:

  1. It would lead to enormous traffic and parking issues which almost all cities (and the region’s) infrastructure are not equipped to handle. Already over 100 cities and counties in CA are on record as opposing SB9 and related legislation.

  2. SFH zoning is not the primary driver of high housing prices and factors such as the huge expansion of high tech in the Bay Area are far more accountable. See, Richard Walker, (Professor of Geography, UC Berkeley), Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. (2018).

  3. Since the recession of 2008-09, as several articles have shown in such publications as the NYT and The Atlantic, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) have played a major role in driving up housing costs and rents. To take one example, Blackstone’s is the largest private holder of real estate in Sacramento.

  4. Abolishing single family zoning would, in most places (where there is a high demand for housing), drive up housing prices as housing speculators vie to build more housing while encouraging more hi-tech firms to move or expand to California. Even areas where high tech is “not a factor,” there would be a massive incentive for developers to buy homes; knock them down and put to 4-6 units driving the price of land and existing “units” up further. Further, as had been argued by several tenants rights’ organizations in CA, it would lead to the displacement of many tenants as homeowners sell to developers for a handsome profit.  All this is to say nothing of the high cost of building due mostly to labor shortages and an increase in price of “primary” building materials such as lumber.

  5. It should be noted also that fast, and unaffordable house price increases, are not unique to CA, and other states and cities in the CA, but just as much of a problems in many W. European countries, New Zealand, Australia, Canada et al. So to blame CA Nimby’s, CEQA et al. is largely off the mark.

I support a strong program of state and federally subsidized housing, as occurred in Western Europe after WWII. I support giving cities and towns the right to impose their own rent controls and the repeal of Costa-Hawkins. And no I am not worried about the impact on my home’s value, and nor are most owners that I know. Note that even the toughest rent controls in places like Berkeley did not apply rent control to new building construction.

Some try to link the exclusionary zoning of the early 20th century to the opposition to abolishing R1 zoning. But this is a sophism of the worst sort and, if you like, a race-baiting tactic in reverse repeatedly employed by the well-organized YIMBY movement, and their developer backers for many years—and indeed some of our City Council members.
 
Indeed, many minorities are homeowners living in R1 areas and that they do not all support, by any means, the ending of RI zoning. See, e.g., Oppose SB 9 and SB 10: Why Do Politicians Want to Take Away Homeownership from Communities of Color?

Senate Bill 9

According to California YIMBY, SB 9 would make two important changes to state law:

  1. It would allow homeowners in most areas around the state to divide their property into two lots, thereby increasing opportunities for homeownership in their neighborhood; and 
  1. It would allow two homes to be built on each of those lots, with the effect of legalizing fourplexes in areas that previously only allowed one home.

Concerning SB 9, Livable California states: “This divisive bill crushes single-family zoning in California, a threat to 7 million homeowners. Wiener (sponsor of the bill) has called yards and single-family homes ‘immoral.’ SB 9 is not a ‘duplex’ bill. It allows 4 market-rate homes where 1 now stands (up to 6 units, if developers use a hidden ‘two-step’ that Livable California volunteer attorneys spotted).”

I believe that SB 9 would cause massive political backlash at the state level, and far far beyond that – maybe not so much in Davis, but yes here too.

Over 100 CA cities and towns are on record as opposing the abolition of R1 zoning.  A statewide poll found that only 28% of people supported it. Republicans, statewide and nationally, purport to be anti-regulation, but they rightly see a huge opportunity here for massive voter backlash—and backlash at supposed “progressive” YIMBY Dems which Newsom et al. will have rightly be seen as has having caved into.

Anyone remember the 2020 presidential campaign and Trump trying to make the most of the fact that CA would abolish single family zoning?  (Google it if you don’t believe me). Think that won’t happen again even if it is not Trump? I even wonder how this could affect Newsom’s recall election, or his re-election in 2022.

If this all seems too abstruse and theoretical, let me put it another way: To begin with circa 90% of Davis and California residents are completely unaware that single family zoning could be abolished where they live.

As I put it in an email to a reporter at the Davis Enterprise a few weeks ago: “How many people know that, imminently, SFH zoning could end, both in Davis and statewide; that one day they could wake up to the sound of bulldozers and jackhammers as 2-4 units building (or even more in some cities) are put up next door to them (as their former neighbor has sold for top dollar to, knowingly, or unknowingly, a developer)?

Whatever your politics, whatever your position on all the DHEC recommendations, does anyone really doubt that the ending of single family zoning, in some form or other, will not have serious political consequences?”

If you are as concerned about the elimination of single-family zoning as I am, here are two actions you can take:

  1. On the local level, you can submit written comments on the Draft Housing Element or the Housing Element Committee’s recommendations via email to jlynch@cityofdavis.org or by mail to Jessica Lynch, senior planner, Department of Community Development and Sustainability, 23 Russell Blvd., Davis, CA 95616. Public comment on the draft will be accepted through July 1.

  2. On the state level, Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) will be heard by the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee this Tuesday, June 22. See this page for information for how you can make your views heard.

Comments

Ron O

Interestingly enough, the reality regarding where people are actually moving, vs. the implied goal of the "density" effort are not in alignment.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/29/business/economy/new-home-building-suburbs.html

https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2021/05/06/massive-project-will-connect-i-5-to-highway-50-near-el-dorado-hills/

Infill efforts (in-and-of-themselves) do not prevent sprawl. And despite the fact that state's population has essentially stopped growing, sprawl is continuing. This includes the massive, ongoing developments in the Southern part of Woodland.

As Dan Walters noted (regarding the state's lack of population growth):

"The most important take from PPIC’s reports is that the factors in the zero population growth Johnson and others advocated decades ago appear to be permanent. It’s entirely possible that California will never quite reach the 40 million population that once seemed inevitable, much less the 50-plus million that had been predicted."
https://calmatters.org/commentary/2021/06/california-population-decline-zero-growth/


Ron O

In regard to Dan's observation regarding Blackstone (and the Sacramento region), I came across the following article:

"Might the fact that corporate investors snapped up 15 percent of U.S. homes for sale in the first quarter of this year have something to do with it?"

"While normal people typically pay a mortgage interest rate between 2 percent and 4 percent these days, Invitation Homes can borrow money for far less: It’s getting billion-dollar loans at interest rates around 1.4 percent."

"That Invitation Homes is getting deals twice as good as a typical homebuyer shows that it’s not just buying any homes: It’s buying the specific houses with the greatest potential to be wealth-building for the middle class."

"But investors are depleting the inventory of the precise houses that might otherwise be obtainable for younger, working- and middle-class households, in the cities where those workers can easily find good-paying jobs . . ."

https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/investment-firms-aren-t-buying-all-the-houses-but-they-are-buying-the-most-important-ones/ar-AALd2RW?ocid=msedgdhp&pc=U531


Mildred Dorn

I am fairly new to Davis and very new to Davisite. I greatly appreciate Davisite and am now subscribed. There was mention that even Berkeley's Rent Control Ordinance does not impose rent control on properties built after 1980. My understanding is that rent control cannot be applied to properties build after 1980. I believe that this is a provision of the Costa Hawkins bill. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I know that that was a big concern of the Rent Board in East Palo Alto. Now old apartments that were under rent control are being torn down in EPA and new apartments are being built. The new apartments will not be under rent control.

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