By Brian Hanlon and Adam Briones
The Sacramento Bee
From city government actions to President Biden’s infrastructure plan, the momentum to end exclusionary zoning and land use policies that contribute to both our housing crisis and neighborhood segregation is mounting. While local and federal government leaders are responding to growing distaste for embedded racist and exclusionary housing policies, our California legislature has yet to pass legislation with the scope needed to address these problems.
In the American Jobs Plan, Biden follows the example of city governments who have taken action to end unfair housing laws that make neighborhoods unaffordable and inaccessible for people of color and low- and middle-income families. The plan calls on Congress to incentivize local governments to “eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws, which drive up the cost of construction and keep families from moving to neighborhoods with more opportunities for them and their kids.”
Biden’s plan sets the national stage for housing policy reform that will make neighborhoods more equitable by encouraging local governments to end widespread local rules that prevent smaller, more affordable housing from being built, such as multi-family housing bans and excessive minimum lot size requirements for new housing.
These policies are the result of decades-long efforts to keep people of color from moving into traditionally white neighborhoods. When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, in an attempt to keep neighborhoods white, cities nationwide enacted bans on multifamily housing, which were more likely to be occupied by people of color and immigrants. In most cases, these are the same single-family only zoning laws that are in effect today.
Multi-family housing bans ensure that only the most expensive form of housing, single-family homes, can be built in wealthy, often white neighborhoods. Most first-time home buyers, including low- and middle-income Californians and essential workers, cannot afford the $700,000 statewide average single-family home, let alone the million-dollar homes in job-rich, coastal metropolitan areas. Today, for every dollar of wealth held by white families, African American and Latino families have about 15 cents, which is mostly due to a dramatic gap in home ownership.
Cities like Sacramento and Berkeley have taken the lead in recent months passing resolutions to end certain exclusionary zoning laws in their jurisdictions. The impetus for these reforms is a movement led by grassroots YIMBY groups, fair housing advocates and racial equity organizations who want to make it legal to build smaller, naturally affordable multifamily housing in more high-opportunity neighborhoods near transit and jobs — making them accessible to more people of color and low- and middle-income families. The impact of this movement is cascading to other cities throughout the state, with Oakland, San Jose, Culver City and San Francisco all reviewing similar proposals.
While activism and leadership on the local level is encouraging, the problem is statewide and systemic. Solving it will require action from our legislature.
It’s not that the California Legislature lacks vision. Both houses have considered proposals that would take steps to end local zoning practices that ban multifamily homes in the state. It’s whether these proposals were bold reforms like SB 50 in 2019, or permitting duplexes that fit within their existing neighborhood contexts like SB 1120 in 2020, our legislators were not able to push these bills through to the governor’s desk. They lost traction despite the avalanche of public support for just this type of common-sense housing reform.
Indisputably, more than 90% of Californians, according to the latest PPIC poll, agree that housing affordability is a problem. Sixty-two percent of Californians supported changing state laws to allow more multifamily homes in a 2019 PPIC poll, and support is only growing stronger. A recent poll found that 79% of Los Angeles residents think allowing fourplexes is a priority. Nonetheless, the loudest voices in the room — NIMBYs — have drowned out the majority and pushed deserved legislative support for recent bills and reform packages off the track.
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While actions by local cities and now President Biden have increased awareness about the need for zoning reform, our state legislature is best positioned to address the issue with the urgency and scale necessary. Statewide reforms are needed to address these systemic problems and make housing more affordable and inclusive for all Californians. The tide change is here and there is no longer an excuse for inaction at the state level.