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The Gaslighting of Single-Family Zoning

This article was originally published in January of 2020. It is being republished now because it remains timely during the coming weeks, when critical housing legislation in Sacramento threatens to dismantle the fundamental basis of lower-class and middle-class upward mobility.


They say we live in a post-facts world. In a post-facts world, ideology trumps scientific evidence or credible statistical data. The only thing worse are the politicians who knowingly feed this ignorance for financial gain and political power.

Most will assume that I’m referring to politics in Washington DC. But as significant as their sins against truth may be, Senators Scott Wiener, Nancy Skinner, and Mike McGuire, the co-authors of Senate Bill 50, are giving them a run for the money.

To paraphrase Rose McGowan, if b.s. was music, they’d be a brass band.

At the rollout press conference of the new and “improved” SB 50, which comes up for a vote in Sacramento on January 26th, Senators Wiener and Skinner were on hand to promote their vision of urbanism for everyone and the elimination of single-family zoning in the state of California.

The theory behind SB 50 is that if we remove all zoning and legislative impediments to development, the “market” will solve all of our state’s housing problems. This approach, they claim, will lead to more affordable housing, even though SB 50 contains no provisions whatsoever to require affordability.

Ronald Reagan and Arthur Laffer[1] would be proud.[2]

Weiner and Skinner’s dog and pony show was drowned out by an Oakland homeless group, Moms 4 Housing. The “Moms” were protesting the inevitable collateral damage from SB 50, which includes higher rents, gentrification, and the displacement of people of color.

Senator Wiener’s response was to say,

“Frankly, I don’t care how much money developers are making. That’s not my concern. I just want more housing.”

Meanwhile, playing the role of the Greek Chorus, Senator McGuire gushed to the the Marin IJ in their article on the protest,

"We have always believed that if a housing bill ends up on the governor’s desk the governor will sign it.”

The Moms are a very small group that is currently squatting, illegally, in an abandoned house. This makes it easy to dismiss their opinions. But if you actually listened to what they had to say, it’s far more astute than anything Wiener or Skinner were selling.

The Moms called SB 50 just another version of 1980s “urban renewal,” which displaced entire poor neighborhoods in its heyday. But they are not alone in warning about SB 50. Zoning and planning experts around the country are also raising red flags about the unintended consequences of these drastic laws. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors have voted to oppose SB 50.

The great irony in all this is that those most in need of affordable housing are the ones most opposed to SB 50. Throughout the state, activists in low-income neighborhoods of color vehemently oppose SB 50 and other new laws that remove zoning power from locally elected government and their community.

One of those is the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, a powerful community organization in Los Angeles. In an announcement for a recent meeting about rampant gentrification, Damien Goodmon, the group’s executive director wrote,

“We are at war. Our historic Black working class community is under attack from gentrification, speculators and developers who want to profit off the community we built. It is long past the time for black politicians to ‘get right’ or get to packing! Our community has a decision to make: Rise up! ...or we might as well pack up.”

Goodmon’s charges are nothing new. What he’s correctly describing has been going on for decades, as luxury housing, high-end retail chains, and commercial development has plowed through low-income neighborhoods everywhere in the country. If anyone has the right to allege racism, it would be Goodmon, yet that’s not his argument. His argument is about equity, equal opportunity, and local control.

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson, community advocate Romerol Malveaux, and Coalition for Economic Survival's Larry Gross hold similar views. At a recent town hall meeting, which included representatives from the South Carthay Neighborhood Association, the Cherrywood Leimert Block Club, the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council, the Coalition for Economic Survival,[3] and others, Herb Wesson noted,

“If SB 50 were to pass, sixty percent of the 10th district that I represent would be impacted. In Mr. Koretz’s district abutting mine, 45 percent of properties would be impacted. SB 50 would change the face of mid-city Los Angeles.”

Romerol Malveaux added,

“When we talk about single-family neighborhoods, we’re not even talking about housing. It’s more, sometimes, than just a place to sleep or eat. It’s also part of a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood. This is your safety net. These are the people that will help you when the earthquake comes. These are the people that might help because they’re next door. You know them, and they know you.”

Malveaux went on to wax poetic in describing the values of single-family home ownership in his predominately lower income community.

“The other element about single-family places is the environment. The trees. The sidewalks. The ability to just walk. It’s aspirational. It’s the goal that you work towards. When I was growing up, you knew you were an adult when you were able to get your own home.

“Today, many young people move back home. Sometimes it's so they can save up to make a down payment on their own home. They want it. It’s as American as apple pie. Our neighborhoods are like our collective soul. There’s a sense of place about the architecture. You know when you move from one to another because you go from Victorian homes to Craftsman homes to the tile roof homes, and you see the beauty of all of it.

“But then the question becomes “who gets to live in single-family neighborhoods?” and “how much money do you have to have to live in single-family neighborhoods?” Many of us are fortunate enough that our neighborhoods are our legacy to our children. So when I see something like SB 50, I get real concerned about whether it’s actually pulling my soul out. I wonder what my children will inherit.”[4]

Comments made by these men leave no doubt that single-family homed are a beloved and prized institution and considered a universal good by people of all races, creeds, and income levels. At this meeting, 90% of the audience attending raised their hands when asked if they opposed SB 50.

In light of all this, what is so bizarre about the “through-the-looking-glass” logic behind SB 50 is that super-progressive, political grifters like Senators Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire are the ones race-baiting to shove their ideologies down the throats of Californians, rich and poor.

According to Senators Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire, if you own or want to buy a single-family home you are a racist. Period.

There is not a shred of evidence whatsoever that their allegation is true, yet this trio is working tirelessly to drown out and defame any opposition, by accusing their critics of the very thing they are doing.

I’ll tell you what is racist. It’s a group of entitled, super liberal, white people lecturing poor, disenfranchised communities of color about what is and is not racist, and what is “good for them.”

The single-family zoning myth

At the roll-out event in Oakland, Senator Nancy Skinner, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, said,

“The majority of land use in all of the areas where there are jobs and transit are zoned single-family. That’s exclusionary zoning. If you think about the history of single-family zoning, it was designed to exclude poor people, to exclude people of color, to exclude whatever class or race of people that that community didn’t want.”

She goes on then to rant that

“75% of the LA basin is zoned single-family. That is racist, that is exclusionary, and that serves, now with the cost of housing. It serves only the super-rich.”

These allegations are so misinformed that it’s hard to even unpack them. The depth of the falsehoods contained in her statements would make President Trump blush.

Whether Ms. Skinner is saying this for political gain or she’s just that stupid is hard to discern, but, either way, it is total nonsense. And that Senator Wiener and Marin County’s own Senator Mike McGuire completely agree with her is… I don’t know what the proper word is… scary?

First of all, all the places in the U.S. that have the greatest concentration of jobs and public transportation are urban downtowns and they are all zoned commercial, retail, and multifamily. That is an incontestable fact.

Secondly, a large percentage of the LA basin and the Valley are zoned for duplexes, triplexes, and other multifamily.

Third, zoning has always preceded jobs and transit in our nation’s history.[5] Single-family zoned suburbs and rural areas in our country have always been the last to get any public transportation or see the development of jobs centers. A six year-old could show you that on a map.

But these senators' claim that single-family zoning was “designed” to be discriminatory is a flat out lie.

The single-family home is arguably the oldest form of housing in the world. It's been with us since the mud hut and the teepee. The second oldest form of single-family housing would probably be the condominium, where homes are packed together for a variety of reasons, but mostly for economies of scale and security. The towns of Medieval Europe, the hillside towns of the Mediterranean, and the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde are examples of this. Multifamily housing, on the other hand, dating back to the Egyptians, Romans, plantation owners, and tenement slumlords, was often built to provide housing for indentured workers, immigrints, and slaves.

But in modern times, the fundamental things that have differentiated who owns or rents single-family versus multi-family housing has been wealth and social, economic, and personal rights and freedoms. No one tells Oprah Winfrey, Robert F. Smith, or Steph Curry where they can and can't live.

A brief history of zoning

The concept of using zoning as a planning tool has been with us since ancient times. Zoning worldwide has been used to separate types of uses (residential versus manufacturing) and also to segregate people based on occupation, societal position, race, religious beliefs, and so on. It has been said that Nero let Rome burn because he wanted to get rid of the local riff raff and make way for urban renewal.

However, the history of zoning laws in the United States have been quite different. Although it has certainly been abused for various purposes, since its inception at the turn of the last century, zoning as a planning tool was not primarily implemented to enforce social inequality.

The first zoning laws in the U.S. were approved in Los Angeles, in 1908, and New York City, in 1916. The primary purpose of these ordinances were about different types of land uses.[6] They were considered “nuisance” ordinances required to separate residential uses from industrial and manufacturing uses. They had nothing to do with who lived where. That was generally a matter of wealth and privilege.

It’s also important to keep in mind that historically most of the land in our country has always been used for single-family housing, reflecting our rural roots as a nation. Urban living is a relatively new historical phenomenon.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation based on race, color, religious beliefs, and a host of other reasons was commonplace throughout the country. Restrictions of all kinds impacted who was hired, who could use public facilities, who received public and private education opportunities, housing rental, and who could join the local country club.

With respect to housing and rental laws, prior to 1964, segregation certainly existed but it was generally irrespective of the type of home one could buy or rent. Segregation and similar prohibitions applied to any type of housing (single-family, multi-family, etc.) and all types of jobs, places, and opportunities.

In other words discrimination did not discriminate between what kind of home someone wanted to live in, only who wanted to live there.

To claim that single-family home zoning, itself, somehow holds a special place in the historic pantheon of discrimination is pure nonsense. Even today, if you get out of the West Coast bubble and travel around the country, this is pretty obvious. There are vast areas zoned for single-family homes that are predominately owned and rented by poorer and more disadvantaged people of all races and creeds.

Wanting to own a home with a yard your kids can play in is not a racial thing. Single-family living has always been and remains, as Mr. Malveaux said, above, as American as apple pie, and it is the major pillar of what we think of as the “American Dream.”

That Senators Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire don’t know this and don’t respect this is unforgivable.

What then is the current relationship between race and housing?

Correlation does not imply causation

This is the fundamental mantra of statistical analysis. It means that just because two things correlate (appear related) does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Correlations between different things can be caused by other factors that affects both of them.

Every high school student knows this. Yet, Senators Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire do not. They are content to profit off of promoting an emotional, dumbed-down worldview.

Where I grew up, in the boroughs of New York City, in the 1950s, there were Jewish, Black, Italian, Irish, White Anglo-Saxon, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods that were all separate. This was due to racist homeowner association laws, or realtors and banks steering different groups to different areas, or because prices made those decisions for the buyers/renters, or frankly, because ethnic and racial groups, particularly immigrants, preferred living in neighborhoods where people that shared their culture. But the neighborhoods were all zoned single-family or multifamily, regardless of who lived there. And over the years, the race, color, and ethnicity of the residents in each neighborhood rotated based on upward or downward economic mobility.

That some people enjoyed socioeconomic opportunities that others didn’t might have been based on racism, xenophobia, lack of education, language barriers, or other factors. But what type of home they lived in was based on how much money they had, not the zoning. This is just as true today as it was then.

Many longstanding disadvantaged communities across the country have traditionally been comprised of single-family homes (go visit Florida, West Virginia, and Mississippi), but in urban areas a greater percentage of disadvantaged populations live in multifamily housing. This is not because single-family zoning is racist, because these populations have been denied equal opportunity to education, jobs, and economic opportunity and so have less financial power. It is also important to note that in urban areas, a greater percentage of people of all races, colors, and creeds live in multifamily housing.

So, based on the reasoning of Senators Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire, that correlation is causation, it would actually be more logical to conclude that multifamily zoning is racist, because that’s where disadvantaged people are being forced to live.

That racism results in economic inequality does not mean that single-family homes (and other benefits of wealth and opportunity) are inherently racist. Single-family zoning is no more racist than any other kind of zoning, nor any more racist than public rest rooms and drinking fountains were inherently racist in the south in 50s. It was segregation that was at fault not the drinking fountain, itself, or its inventor.

Correlation is not causation.

Why not just address racism head-on? The answer to that is because this is not about racism at all. It's about the financialization and corporatization of residential real estate.

Why isn’t affordability addressed in all the new housing laws?

SB50 makes no provisions for affordable housing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this will equate to more high-end housing for highly paid tech workers. The three senators say they just want more housing of all types. But they never get around to explaining how these “all types” actually get built. If just getting rid of zoning laws produced affordable housing, it would have already happened in markets around the country.

All you have to do is go to Houston, which has no zoning laws at all, to see how well that’s working to provide affordable housing. It’s not.

The senator’s beliefs would be laughable if the outcomes were not so onerous. There are an endless number of people of all races, creeds, and colors -- African American, Asian, Latino, Indian, and yes, middle class white people -- who own and improve their single-family homes or who are right now working long hours to fulfill their dream of owning one, while Wiener, Skinner, and McGuire are accusing them all of being racists.

Shame on them and anyone who supports them.

Single-family zoning has never been a proponent of racism, even if racism has allowed single-family home ownership to skew to the benefit of the wealthy or particular races. Single-family zoned areas in the U.S. are prized by people of all races.

The senators' attempts to conflate zoning with a lack of racial diversity flies in the face the fact that who gets to live where reflects the lack of diversity of financial means more than anything else, but that doesn’t make single-family zoning the cause.

Meanwhile, Californians need to wake up and rise up soon, because Sacramento is gutting the goose that laid the golden egg in the Golden State.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Laffer

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickle-down_economics

[3] https://www.2preservela.org/huge-south-los-angeles-town-hall-opposes-sb-50/

[4] https://www.planningreport.com/2019/05/27/south-los-angeles-forum-opposes-sb-50

[5] We built the Transcontinental Railroad to connect existing urban centers, not single-family neighborhoods.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoning_in_the_United_States


Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.