Not So Fast

Open zoning won’t solve housing pains

By Kerry Freeman & Maggie Coulter
April 2021

Sacramento city planners say single-family zoning must go. For now, the City Council agrees. Unfortunately, the city has failed to consider the negative impact of this proposal. There’s no fact-based justification for it.

The proposed 2040 General Plan, which takes effect next year, seeks to eliminate single-family zoning. It would allow fourplexes on any single-family lot. Under state law, two Accessory Dwelling Units (or in-law units) are already permitted. This means up to six residential units would be allowed on lots currently zoned for single-family homes.

In some of the city’s older neighborhoods, this experimental proposal would allow a six-fold density increase. No assessment has been done about whether the infrastructure can handle the extra workload or the cost of upgrades.

The proposed General Plan would eliminate on-site parking requirements, with no suggestion of where those extra cars will park.

At public workshops, city planners try to downplay the impact. They say only 100 new multifamily structures are expected each year. While 100 units a year would be impactful, the long-term outcome is more ominous: The barn door will be wide open for investors to convert single-family homes on a much larger scale.

Planners claim these new multifamily units will be subject to design review. But current review standards are minimal. And if buildings don’t require deviations from setback, height or lot coverage rules, they don’t need neighborhood input for approval.

What’s the rationale behind converting single-family neighborhoods to multifamily?

The city offers these justifications: the need for more affordable housing; undoing the legacy of racist covenants and redlining that prevented people of color from buying houses in certain neighborhoods; to create more housing.

Eliminating single-family zoning will increase land values and housing prices, not decrease them. Research by Patrick Condon, an urban design professor at the University of British Columbia, shows the strategy drives up housing costs and doesn’t create affordable housing.

“We have incrementally quadrupled the density of Vancouver, but we haven’t seen any decrease in per-square-foot costs,” Condon says. “No amount of opening zoning or allowing for development will cause prices to go down.”

Neighborhoods where property is less expensive, such as Oak Park, will likely feel the negative impacts first when investors buy single-family homes to convert to multifamily. The process will speed gentrification and the displacement of lower-income residents.

Turning single-family housing stock into market-rate apartments will not help groups excluded from home ownership. Rather, it will reduce the number of single-family homes available for purchase, making it even harder for first-time buyers.

The city’s flawed premise is that equity and justice are served if people can at least rent in a so-called “desirable” neighborhood (assuming they can afford the rent). Equity and justice would be better served if the city invested in making every neighborhood desirable.

While converting single-family neighborhoods to multifamily will not produce more affordable housing or create equity, it would increase density.

But Sacramento’s diverse and predominately single-family neighborhoods do not need to be eliminated to provide more housing. There is a vast potential for housing at many large vacant lots. Moreover, the city has many underutilized commercial and office buildings that could convert to housing.

Do we really want density in every neighborhood? Do we want single-family housing converted to multifamily apartments? Do we want to eliminate the choice to live in lower density, predominately single-family neighborhoods?

In a February workshop, city planners attempted to defend increasing density and eliminating on-site parking requirements. They pointed to San Francisco and Manhattan, where crowded conditions and very limited off-street parking discourage car use.

Do we want zoning and parking changes that convert our city into San Francisco or Manhattan?

This controversial proposal is being rushed into law without adequate assessment of its impact, or whether the majority of Sacramento residents even want it. How about letting the public vote?

Kerry Freeman and Maggie Coulter can be reached at Freeman is past president of the Elmhurst Neighborhood Association and Coulter is current president. They are longtime Sacramento residents.

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