Single-family zoning

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Single-family zoning is a type of planning restriction applied to certain residential zones in the United States and Canada in order to restrict development to only allow single-family detached homes. It disallows townhomes, duplexes, and multi-family housing (apartments) from being built on any plot of land with this zoning designation.[1][2] It is a form of exclusionary zoning,[3][4][5][6] and was created as a way to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods.[1][3][5] It both increases the cost of housing units and decreases the supply.[7] In many United States cities, 75% of land zoned for residential uses is zoned single-family.[2]

Recently, many cities across the nation have started looking at reforming their land-use regulations, particularly single-family zoning, in attempts to solve their housing shortages and reduce the racial inequities which arise from housing segregation.[8][9] These upzoning efforts would not require that new housing types be built in a neighborhood, it merely allows for flexibility in options. For example, changing a single family zoning district to a multifamily residential zoning district would not mandate single family detached homes be converted, nor would it prohibit new single family homes, it would just allow owners of those single family detached homes to subdivide their property, or owners of empty lots to build something other than a single family home.[8]

In the late 2010s and early 2020s, states including California and Oregon as well as cities like Minneapolis and Charlottesville, Virginia have signed bills, made proposals, or started investigations to effectively eliminate single-family zoning. This includes requiring cities to approve two units and under certain conditions up to four units on single-family lots for example.[10][11][12]


According to multiple sources, single-family zoning originated in 1916 in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley, California as an effort to keep minorities, specifically a Black dancehall and Chinese laundries, out of white neighborhoods.[1][3][4][5][8]: 1 Real estate developer Duncan McDuffie was one of the early proponents of single-family zoning in this neighborhood of Berkeley to prevent a dance hall owned by a Black resident from moving into houses he was trying to sell. He worried that families of color moving into the neighborhood would decrease the desirability of the neighborhood and decrease property values. By advocating for single-family zoning, McDuffie and other developers at the time were attempting to price out social groups whom they deemed to be less desirable for the neighborhood.[1] This makes single-family zoning one of many exclusionary zoning policies intended to limit who was able to afford living in a certain neighborhood. The goal of limiting certain neighborhoods to only single-family homes meant that only families who could afford to buy an entire house could live in the neighborhood. There was not the option to subdivide housing so that families who could not afford to buy the whole property could live in smaller units.[13]

After the US Supreme Court's 1917 decision in Buchanan v. Warley, which declared explicit race-based zoning statutes unconstitutional, the court in 1926 decided in Euclid v. Ambler that it was a legitimate use of the police power of cities to ban apartment buildings from certain neighborhoods, with Justice George Sutherland referring to an apartment complex as "a mere parasite" on a neighborhood.[14][15] This enabled the spread of single-family zoning as a means to keep poor and minority people out of white neighborhoods.[14][15][16] In many cases, homeowners and neighborhood associations adopted covenants to prevent homes in their neighborhood from being sold to buyers of color. Restrictive covenants were legal until a 1948 Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer made them unenforceable, though they continued to be included on deeds until the 1968 Fair Housing Act deemed that illegal as well.[6][17]

"Single-family zoning became basically the only option to try to maintain both race and class segregation," - Jessica Trounstine (associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced)[16]

Sonia Hirt, professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Georgia, states that "In the early 1900s, the racially and ethnically charged private restrictions of the late nineteenth century were temporarily overshadowed by the rise of municipal zoning ordinances with the same explicit intent."[13] Hirt says single-family zoning is a uniquely American phenomenon: "I could find no evidence in other countries that this particular form — the detached single-family home — is routinely, as in the United States, considered to be so incompatible with all other types of urbanization as to warrant a legally defined district all its own, a district where all other major land uses and building types are outlawed."[15]


In many United States cities, 75% of land zoned for residential uses is zoned single-family,[2] and across the state of California as a whole, that number is greater than 66%.[8]


Because this type of zoning reduces the amount of land available for new housing, it pushes development into poor, minority communities or to land beyond the borders of the city.[2]: 1

According to Andrew Whittemore, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, one effect stems from the belief that higher density housing in neighborhoods decreases housing values, and that one role of the government is to keep homeowner's house values high, and because cities have prioritized single-family homeowners above other groups, this has turned city planners into wealth managers when city planners should be concerned with using zoning to prevent harm.[2]: 1 Sonia Hirt supports this, stating, "In the United States, private profit as a result of zoning ordinances that preserved and enhanced 'investment values' was not only fully expected, it was a major zoning goal."[13]

Racial segregation[edit]

A 2020 study from UC Berkeley stated "The greater proportion of single-family zoning, the higher the observed level of racial residential segregation."[1][18]

Increases housing costs and decreases housing supply[edit]

Single-family zoning both increases housing costs and decreases the number of available units by reducing the number of units that can be built on a piece of land.[7] As an example, an old, run-down, single family home on a typical lot in Washington, DC, would sell for about $1 million, but if it were legal for a developer to build a three-story, six unit condominium building on that lot, those units would sell for about $600,000; which is 40% less per unit and 500% more units.[7]

Recent changes[edit]

Recently, cities across the nation have started looking at reforming their land-use regulations, particularly single-family zoning, in attempts to solve their housing shortages and reduce the racial inequities which arise from housing segregation.[8][9]

In recent years, there has been a growing concern over "missing middle housing" in the United States housing market. This term refers to options in between renting apartments and buying a single family detached home on an entire lot. "Middle" housing options like this include duplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, and cottage court apartments which could provide options for lower and middle income individuals who cannot afford single family homes.[8] Advocates for getting rid of single family zoning argue that by allowing housing options outside of only single family homes, more people would be able to stay in their cities without being priced out or relying on a shrinking supply of affordable units.[7]

Ending single family zoning is a controversial topic. Many residents and NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) advocates do not want development to increase the density of their neighborhood of exclusively single family homes. Some argue that having apartments will decrease the value of their single family homes. Some argue that upzoning initiatives will increase effects of gentrification by increasing the housing costs in that area. Their argument is that homeowners will have a higher incentive to sell their properties at even higher rates because buyers or developers might be willing to pay more for houses they know they can convert into multiplexes.[19] Those who are proponents of ending single family zoning call themselves YIMBYs (Yes in my Backyard) as a counter-movement to NIMBY sentiments. They argue that more housing is the answer to the housing shortage, so they see the increase in density of their neighborhood as justified.[20]


In 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city in the US to end single-family zoning, (which had covered almost 75% of their residential land) by allowing duplexes and triplexes in every neighborhood, as well as higher density housing along transit lines.[14][16]: 1 By allowing triplexes in all neighborhoods their intention is to give all people opportunity to move to neighborhoods with good schools or jobs, as well as to increase affordability, reduce displacement of lower-income residents, and increase both the economic and racial diversity of neighborhoods.[14]: 1[21][22][9]



Prior to 2021, across the state of California as a whole, almost 66% of all residences were single-family homes and almost 75% of all developable land was zoned single-family.[8][23]

In September 2021, governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 9, which effectively eliminated single-family-only zoning, requiring cities to approve two units and under certain conditions up to four units on single-family lots.[10][11][12] This law is expected to have minimal impact on neighborhoods, as experts estimated that it is only cost effective for 5% of single-family owners to upgrade their property. A study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley estimated that this new law could potentially result in 700,000 new housing units statewide, about 20% of the homes necessary to alleviate the housing shortage of 3.5 million homes.[24][23]


In January 2021, Sacramento voted to permit up to four housing units on all residential lots to help the city reduce its housing shortage and to achieve equity goals by making neighborhoods with good schools accessible to people who cannot afford to purchase homes there.[25][26]

In February 2021, the City Council of Berkeley, California voted unanimously to allow fourplexes in all neighborhoods, with Vice Mayor Lori Droste saying that this is "necessary as a first step in undoing a history of racist housing policies."[4][5][27]

San Francisco, where almost 75% of all land zoned residential allows only single-family homes or duplexes, is scheduled in 2021 to discuss a proposal to allow fourplexes on corner lots, and any lot within half a mile from a train station.[28][29] David Garcia, policy director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, said that a proposal to allow fourplexes everywhere would be a more equitable proposal, and that research shows that the housing shortage is so large that limiting new housing to specific areas would not sufficiently address the shortage.[28][29]


In August 2021, Charlottesville, Virginia's planning commission started investigating the idea of reducing some of their exclusionary zoning rules (particularly single-family zoning) to allow for more housing affordability, where working-class Black residents have been disproportionately displaced to surrounding communities.[30]


On July 2, 2019, Oregon passed House Bill 2001, requiring medium cities (more than 10,000 people) to allow duplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes and large cities (more than 25,000 people or more than 1,000 people if they are in the Portland metropolitan area) to allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, cottage court apartments, and townhouses in areas zoned for single-family homes. It went into effect on July 30, 2021 for medium cities and will go into effect July 30, 2022 for large cities. Almost 70% of the state (approximately 2.8 million people) lives in a city affected by the bill, and most of those live in a city affected by the provisions for large cities.[31][32][33]


  1. ^ a b c d e Baldassari, Erin; Solomon, Molly (October 5, 2020). "The Racist History of Single-Family Home Zoning". NPR. Archived from the original on November 14, 2020. Single-family zoning makes it illegal for a community to build anything other than a single home on a single lot. That means no apartment buildings, condos or duplexes.
  2. ^ a b c d e Badger, Emily; Bui, Quoctrung (June 18, 2019). "Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot - Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods. Now some communities regret it". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Today the effect of single-family zoning is far-reaching: It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.
  3. ^ a b c Hansen, Louis (March 1, 2021). "Is this the end of single-family zoning in the Bay Area? San Jose, Berkeley, other cities consider sweeping changes". San Jose Mercury News. Single-family zoning, a form of exclusionary zoning, traces its roots in the U.S. to Berkeley in 1916, when city leaders sought to segregate white homeowners from apartment complexes rented by minority residents. It’s become the default policy in cities and suburbs across the country.
  4. ^ a b c Ruggiero, Angela (February 24, 2021). "Berkeley to end single-family residential zoning, citing racist ties". San Jose Mercury News. Berkeley is thought to be the birthplace of single-family residential zoning; it began in the Elmwood neighborhood in 1916, where it forbade the construction of anything other than one home per lot. That has historically made it difficult for people of color or those with lower incomes to purchase or lease property in sought-after neighborhoods, city officials said. ... Even after racial discrimination such as redlining — refusing home loans to those in low-income neighborhoods — was outlawed, it continued in the form of single-family zoning, he said.
  5. ^ a b c d Yelimeli, Supriya (February 24, 2021). "Berkeley denounces racist history of single-family zoning, begins 2-year process to change general plan - Council unanimously approved a resolution that will work toward banning single-family zoning". Berkeleyside. Archived from the original on March 1, 2021. Droste and co-authors pointed out in the resolution that Berkeley was the first city in the United States to enact single-family zoning in 1916 in Droste’s district, the Elmwood. This combined with discriminatory lending practices, redlining and the Berkeley Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 1973 to create deeply segregated neighborhoods.
  6. ^ a b Demsas, Jerusalem (February 17, 2021). "America's racist housing rules really can be fixed". Vox. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d Schuetz, Jenny (January 7, 2020). "To improve housing affordability, we need better alignment of zoning, taxes, and subsidies". Brookings. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Baldassari, Erin (March 13, 2021). "Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods". NPR. Archived from the original on March 31, 2021. It's part of a growing movement of cities across California, and the country, to rethink traditional single-family neighborhoods as way to tackle high housing costs and redress decades of racial segregation in housing. ... In California, more than two-thirds of all residential land is dedicated solely to single-family homes.
  9. ^ a b c Willis, Haisten (June 27, 2019). "As cities rethink single-family zoning, traditional ideas of the American Dream are challenged". The Washington Post. But urban planners in Minneapolis say they hope the plan will lead to a more walkable, more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more inclusive city thanks to higher density and an added supply of housing stock.
  10. ^ a b Plachta, Ari (August 19, 2021). "Sacramento fight looms over plan to split single-family lots". The Los Angeles Times.
  11. ^ a b "Governor Newsom Signs Historic Legislation to Boost California's Housing Supply and Fight the Housing Crisis". September 16, 2021.
  12. ^ a b Dougherty, Conor (August 26, 2021). "After Years of Failure, California Lawmakers Pave the Way for More Housing". The New York Times.
  13. ^ a b c Barber, Jesse (March 12, 2019). "Berkeley zoning has served for many decades to separate the poor from the rich and whites from people of color". Berkeleyside.
  14. ^ a b c d Grabar, Henry (December 7, 2018). "Minneapolis Confronts Its History of Housing Segregation - By doing away with single-family zoning, the city takes on high rent, long commutes, and racism in real estate in one fell swoop". Slate. Archived from the original on December 31, 2018. Single-family home zoning was devised as a legal way to keep black Americans and other minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods, and it still functions as an effective barrier today. ... The U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based zoning in 1917, but nine years later, found it constitutional for a Cleveland suburb to ban apartment buildings. The idea that you could legislate out not just gritty industrial facilities but also renters spread rapidly. In concert with racism in real estate, police departments, and housing finance, single-family zoning proved as effective at segregating northern neighborhoods (and their schools) as Jim Crow laws had in the South.
  15. ^ a b c Fox, Justin (January 19, 2020). "News Analysis: How we got single-family home zoning and why it is under attack in the U.S." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 27, 2020. ... the landmark 1926 Supreme Court decision that established the legality of zoning asserted that "very often the apartment house is a mere parasite."
  16. ^ a b c Mervosh, Sarah (December 13, 2018). "Minneapolis, Tackling Housing Crisis and Inequity, Votes to End Single-Family Zoning". The New York Times. Single-family neighborhoods rose to prominence across the country after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that zoning based on race was unconstitutional. "Single-family zoning became basically the only option to try to maintain both race and class segregation," said Jessica Trounstine, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, who has studied segregation. In addition, generations of racial disparities in wealth accumulation, exacerbated by federally backed lending practices that discriminated against African-Americans, meant that most homeowners were white. "So if you make a particular part of the city homeowners only, then you essentially make that neighborhood restricted to whites," Ms. Trounstine said.
  17. ^ Watt, Nick; Hannah, Jack (February 15, 2020). "Racist language is still woven into home deeds across America. Erasing it isn't easy, and some don't want to". CNN. The federal government in 1934 endorsed such segregation by refusing to underwrite mortgages for homes unless a racial covenant was in place. Then in 1948, following activism from black Americans, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled these covenants unenforceable. Still, racial covenants continued to be written, enforced with threats of civil legal action. Finally, two decades later -- in 1968 -- the federal Fair Housing Act finally outlawed these covenants altogether.
  18. ^ Menendian, Stephen; Gambhir, Samir; Gailes, Arthur (August 11, 2020). "Racial Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, Part 5". UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute. Archived from the original on November 1, 2020. We then describe how restrictive land use policies, and especially single-family zoning, reinforces and promotes racial residential segregation by showing the correlation between different types of segregation and single-family zoning. ...excessive single-family zoning does not allow cities to provide enough housing for people, or the density needed to make shelter affordable and reduce sprawl, which exacerbates greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes to both economic and racial segregation.
  19. ^ Davis, Jenna (July 15, 2021). "The double-edged sword of upzoning". Brookings. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  20. ^ Yglesias, Matthew (December 27, 2019). "The telling conservative backlash to a Virginia zoning reform proposal, explained". Vox. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  21. ^ Trickey, Erick (July 11, 2019). "How Minneapolis Freed Itself From the Stranglehold of Single-Family Homes - Desperate to build more housing, the city just rewrote its decades-old zoning rules". Politico. Minneapolis just did away with the rules that gave single-family homes a stranglehold on nearly three-quarters of the city.
  22. ^ Thompson, Megan (November 23, 2019). "How Minneapolis became the first to end single-family zoning". PBS. To help address a housing shortage, Minneapolis became the first large American city to end single-family zoning, the rules that restrict certain neighborhoods to single-family homes. Now, buildings with up to three units can be built on any residential lot. Leaders hope this, and other plans, will add new units, create density and remedy segregation. ... In Minneapolis, which is about 60 percent white, almost three quarters of the city's residential property was zoned for single-family homes.
  23. ^ a b Dillon, Liam (September 3, 2021). "The big change coming to California neighborhoods". Los Angeles Times. Nearly two-thirds of all the residences in California are single-family homes. And as much as three-quarters of the developable land in the state is now zoned only for single-family housing, according to UC Berkeley research. ... Indeed, UC Berkeley researchers recently found that it would make financial sense for property owners of only about 5% of the state’s 7.5 million single-family lots to add more homes on their property.
  24. ^ Angst, Maggie (September 17, 2021). "What California's new SB9 housing law means for single-family zoning in your neighborhood - Experts say the vast majority of properties and neighborhoods will not be affected". San Jose Mercury News. Will this law put a dent in California’s housing shortage? A recent study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley estimated that just 5.4% of the state’s current single-family lots had the potential to be developed under Senate Bill 9, making the construction of up to 714,000 new housing units financially feasible. That’s only a fraction of the 3.5 million new housing units Gov. Newsom wants to see built by 2025.
  25. ^ Clift, Theresa (January 19, 2021). "Sacramento moves forward with controversial zoning change designed to address housing crisis". The Sacramento Bee. Archived from the original on January 31, 2021. The Sacramento City Council took a step Tuesday toward becoming one of the first cities in the country to eliminate traditional single-family zoning. The change, for which the council unanimously signaled support, would allow houses across the city to contain up to four dwelling units. City officials said the proposal would help the city alleviate its housing crisis, as well as achieve equity goals, by making neighborhoods with high-performing schools, pristine parks and other amenities accessible for families who cannot afford the rising price tags to buy homes there.
  26. ^ "Sacramento moves toward becoming one of 1st U.S. cities to eliminate single-family zoning". KTLA. January 20, 2021.
  27. ^ Ravani, Sarah (February 25, 2021). "Berkeley vows to end single-family zoning by end of 2022: 'Right the wrongs of our past'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  28. ^ a b Baldassari, Erin (February 16, 2021). "California Cities Rethink the Single-Family Neighborhood". KQED.
  29. ^ a b Knight, Heather (January 30, 2021). "S.F. supervisor's creative proposal: Make it hard to build McMansions, easier to build small apartments". San Francisco Chronicle. He actually thinks Mandelman would have a better chance of ensuring equity if he followed Sacramento’s path and allowed fourplexes everywhere. Then large parts of the west side that have been frozen in time would finally have to carry their weight, alleviating the crush on the east side. ... "There’s a lot of research on the need to increase housing supply in all in-fill areas, not just near transit," Garcia said. "San Francisco has some robust transit, but certainly not to the degree where limiting new housing to those areas is going to have as big of an impact as we need to address the full shortage."
  30. ^ Robertson, Campbell (August 1, 2021). "A Fight Over Zoning Tests Charlottesville's Progress on Race - Four years after a white supremacist march, the Virginia city is reconsidering its housing and zoning rules". The New York Times. Propelled by research showing that single-family zoning restrictions have roots in discrimination and consequences in soaring housing prices and more segregated neighborhoods, Charlottesville is joining communities across the country in debating whether to ease these restrictions.
  31. ^ Wamsley, Laurel (July 1, 2019). "Oregon Legislature Votes To Essentially Ban Single-Family Zoning". NPR. Retrieved June 30, 2022.
  32. ^ "Oregon Strikes Exclusive Single-Family Zoning, But Effects May Take Years". opb. Retrieved June 30, 2022.
  33. ^ "Department of Land Conservation and Development : Housing Choices (House Bill 2001) : Urban Planning : State of Oregon". Retrieved June 30, 2022.

Further reading[edit]