Opinion: Holy cow! California may get rid of single-family zoning


California may be on the verge of eliminating single-family zoning statewide. This is huge. And it’s a sign of how quickly the politics around housing and land use have shifted in just the last year.

On Wednesday, a key committee signed off on Senate Bill 50 — San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to allow denser, taller housing around transit and in communities with lots of jobs. As part of the negotiations, Wiener agreed to merge his proposal with Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and the result includes one very big change: Single-family houses could be converted to four-unit buildings, by right, anywhere in the state.

That is, a property owner could subdivide or remodel a house to turn it into four apartments. Or a developer could build a fourplex on a vacant single-family lot. The proposal wouldn’t allow people to demolish a house and build a new fourplex on the property, however.


It’s unclear how many property owners could reasonably convert a house to apartments, or whether this proposal would significantly increase multi-family housing in what are now single-family neighborhoods. There are also serious questions about whether this proposal will survive future committee hearings, not to mention the Assembly gantlet and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto pen.

Still — let’s just pause on the fact that a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that would allow apartments pretty much anywhere in California.

Again, this would be a major change from the status quo. Wiener has said that it’s illegal to build more than a single-family house (plus an in-law unit) in roughly 80% of California’s residential neighborhoods.

Let’s just pause on the fact that a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that would allow apartments pretty much anywhere in California.

And yet, maybe the support for this proposal is not so surprising. The political winds have been shifting on single-family restrictions. Last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted to eliminate single-family zoning and instead allow duplexes and triplexes to be built on lots reserved for one house. The city enacted the policy so it would be easier to build affordable, denser communities, but also to help integrate neighborhoods that are still segregated as a result of discriminatory housing practices dating back decades. Strict single-family zoning was often adopted as a way to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group.

Planners in Charlotte, N.C., are looking to eliminate single-family zoning for the same reasons.


On the West Coast, the high-cost cities of Seattle and Portland have considered rezoning single-family lots or allowing up to four-unit buildings in single-family neighborhoods. One Oregon lawmaker proposed allowing fourplexes on single-family lots in any city in the state with more than 10,000 residents.

Even Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who was down on Wiener’s proposal last year to open single-family neighborhoods to denser development — is warming to the idea. He told Times reporter Liam Dillon earlier this month that the city was looking at the Minneapolis model of allowing triplexes on single-family lots as a way to build more housing “that is also neighborhood compatible.”

It’s also worth noting that the fourplex proposal originated with Sen. McGuire, who represents suburban communities in Northern California. The idea was to let communities grow denser in an organic way that maintained community character by, for example, allowing an old Victorian house to be converted into four apartments.

“No community should see dramatic change, but every community should see some change,” McGuire said Wednesday before the vote to blend his bill into SB 50.

That’s a comforting mantra to suburban communities and single-family neighborhoods. But let’s be clear — allowing apartments in single-family neighborhoods would be a dramatic and important change.

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