The concept of single-family zoning was born from lies. Specifically, Bay Area read.
For decades starting in the late 19th century, white residents of San Francisco tried, unsuccessfully, to impose state-sanctioned segregation on their Chinese neighbors. The 1890 Bingham Ordinance, which explicitly banned Chinese residents from certain areas of the city under penalty of jail, was thrown out by the courts on equal protection grounds — as were subsequent efforts at openly racialized zoning.
Undeterred, white property owners searched for legal end-arounds. And they found one in single-family zoning. White elites had almost exclusive access to the kind of capital needed to purchase a freestanding home. And so single-family zoning became a tool for de facto apartheid, under the guise of separation of use. The idea was first implemented in Berkeley in 1916 as a tool to eject Asian-owned laundries and a “negro dance hall” from the proximity of white homeowners. San Francisco soon followed suit.
Like the Bingham Ordinance before it, single-family zoning was initially shot down by courts — for its only slightly more subtle racialized designs. It ultimately survived constitutional scrutiny, however, with the aid of a Supreme Court reversal — by the same justices who upheld “separate but equal.”
And so the practice spread throughout the country — the Bay Area’s gift to American racism.
On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to finally end single-family zoning in the city that helped birth it. But, with the weight of history on their shoulders, did supervisors rise to the challenge of crafting a bill that earnestly addresses a century of historical wrong?
Instead, their effort, like single-family zoning itself, was a cheap ploy — a not-so-subtle end-around to subvert a new California law mandating streamlined development in exclusionary neighborhoods. Despite made-for-headlines boasts about allowing fourplexes and six-unit homes on formerly single-family plots, the supervisors’ housing bill will do nothing to spur denser development in excluded neighborhoods.
And they know it.
A planning department feasibility study shows that developers trying to navigate the bill’s restrictions will lose money by the handfuls should they try to build denser housing on a formerly single-family plot.
Cue the chorus of boo-hoos. But guess what happens when developers are guaranteed to lose money? They don’t build anything.
As if to stamp home the fact their bill has no intention of breaking up a century of single-family dominance, supervisors inserted a rule that says only those living in their homes for more than five years, or those who inherited the real estate, can take advantage of new streamlined zoning rules.
What is the point of ending single-family zoning if developers aren’t actually allowed to easily build denser new housing in formerly restricted areas?
“Luxury” condos are notorious boogeymen in San Francisco. But single-family homes are the city’s most luxurious form of housing. Their median sales price is $1.95 million in 2022; that’s $700,000 more than a condo. Single-family homes, with rare concessions, are exempted from rent control — making them largely unaffordable to working families. Homeowners, meanwhile, are granted generous state and federal tax breaks. They also enjoy protections from police search and seizure that many renters do not. Home ownership in America affords a higher status of citizenship. And single-family ownership is at the top of that status.
“This is not the final statement on density in low-density neighborhoods,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the housing bill’s author, said on Tuesday.
Perhaps like that. And the board deserves praise for apparently coming to terms with Mayor London Breed on new social housing spending that could allow government to directly build more affordable units.
But that effort will provide just a fraction of the more than 80,000 new homes San Francisco needs.
As if putting a stamp on the limited scale of their vision, supervisors this week moved forward with another dubious housing measure. This one, draped in sanctimonious language of affordability, would appear on the November ballot—despite feasibility studies that, once again, show nothing will get built under the tight-fisted rules of the plan. With a wink and a nod, the measure’s goal appears to be sabotaging a competing initiative by Breed that would streamline the construction of much-needed dense, mixed-income developments.
These cheap theatrics are ideological parlor tricks in service of a status quo that is failing San Francisco.
Single-family zoning was born of racial malice and a desire to find a legally permissible end-around to integration. That malice is built into the physical structure of our communities.
Read put us here. They won’t get us out.
This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.