California Bans Single-Family-Only Zoning: What this Means for Housing Opportunities

By Rachel Puryear

Buying a home is a huge financial milestone for anyone. For many people, a major financial goal is to buy a house, also called a single-family home.

Single-family homes are desirable for the amount of space and amenities they can offer, including a yard. They offer a level of privacy, peace, and quiet which is more difficult to find in denser housing.

For some people, however, they don’t just want to have a house for their own family. They want all of their neighbors to also live in single-family homes – and do not want multi-family housing in their neighborhoods. These people are often called “NIMBY’s” (Not In My BackYard).

This phenomenon has given rise over the years to quite a few neighborhoods being zoned for single-family homes only. In such areas, only single-family homes can be built, and multi-family housing is prohibited.

An attractive single-family home on a tree-lined street.

The prevalence of widespread single-family-only zoning has had several negative effects, including:

  • Limiting the development of multi-family housing has created housing shortages, and driven up the cost of housing. Furthermore, people who need the more affordable multi-family units because they cannot afford a house, have fewer housing options.
  • Widespread single-family-only zoning has perpetuated racial segregation in housing. Fewer people of color can afford to buy single-family homes than whites, due to economic inequalities which still persist. Single-family-only areas tend to have predominantly white residents. Allowing multi-family housing in areas which are now all-single-family zones would likely result in many of these neighborhoods becoming more diverse.
  • Property owners in single-family-only areas might like to add additional units onto their land. Their reasons could be for extended families and multigenerational households, for rental income, or to increase the resale value of their home. However, prohibitions on multi-family housing might eliminate such options for homeowners.

In light of such housing problems, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10 (SB 9 and 10) into law. Senate Bill 9 allows for houses in single-family-only zones to add one additional unit to the lot, or to build a two-unit building (duplex). Senate Bill 10 includes provisions encouraging denser housing development in transit-rich areas. These two new laws are a big shift following more than a century of lots of restrictive zoning.

None of this is to say that single-family homes are a bad thing, or that it’s wrong to want to live in a house. Living in a house is great, especially for larger families! The problem instead lies in the fact that single-family-only zoning is so widespread that it covers large areas of available residential land, to the exclusion of multi-family housing being more widely available.

I think most people can appreciate legitimate reasons why many people might people prefer less densely populated neighborhoods: less traffic, fewer crowds, less noise, and so forth. I am sympathetic to these desires, as I prefer living in quiet and low-traffic areas myself.

However, severely limiting affordable housing, and perpetuating racial segregation in housing; in a pretty steep price to pay for widespread single-family-only zoning. Furthermore, good city planning and sustainable development can alleviate a lot of pressures from increased housing density.

There is a big difference, after all; between allowing current single-family homeowners to add an ADU to their lot, versus erecting a high-rise in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The new laws are not putting high-rises into neighborhoods currently full of single-family homes – high-rises are still found mainly in downtown areas. I believe that these new laws are, accordingly, reasonable in scope.

Additionally, single-family-only neighborhoods are not necessarily quiet anymore, anyway. Suburban neighborhoods have gotten much louder in recent years, due to people using very noisy leaf blowers to excessively their manicure lawns. As a realtor, I am in a lot of houses in a lot of neighborhoods, all the time – and in my experience, leaf blowers are a noise nuisance all over the place. As far as I’m concerned, this is much worse for the quality of life in the suburbs than more duplexes and ADU’s are. Furthermore, unlike obnoxious leaf blowers, enabling more housing options has a lot of good to offer for society.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to affordable housing that meets the needs of our diverse society.

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