An emboldened Governor Gavin Newsom, fresh off his double-digit victory in the Recall Election on September 14, has already embarked on a new crusade of big government overreach that is threatening to disrupt the lives of millions of Californians. This time, Newsom has set his sights on a staple of the American dream – owning a single-family home in the suburbs. On the same day voters chose to keep Newsom in office, he signed into law a series of bills that effectively eliminated single-family zoning in the state of California.
The several pieces of legislation together now allow up to four housing units on a single-family lot and make it easier for cities to “upzone” various parcels of land—including single-family lots—to build housing structures with as many as ten units.
Newsom and Democrats claim that the demand for affordable housing in California cannot be met if two-thirds of its residential land excludes multi-family housing, especially in areas where there are plentiful jobs and public transit (i.e. California’s coastal cities).
The legislation, according to the Newsom administration, will also allow homeowners—who were previously allowed to build up to three units on their property—to now build four and also give developers more flexibility in deciding the types of units they will build, including whether or not to split the lot and sell. They believe it will encourage the creation of duplexes, triplexes, and fourplex apartment buildings alongside single-family homes, which are today quite common in California cities.
Newsom also signed a bill intended to further speed up housing development by requiring developers to replace demolished rent-controlled or affordable housing units with new construction.
In short, the various bills shake up California’s housing crisis by essentially preventing local communities from allowing neighborhoods to be zoned exclusively for single-family homes and forcing them to accept multi-family zoning as a means to increase California’s housing supply.
Some of these measures might sound good in theory, but, as with most liberal utopian plans, there’s a problem: they are far from certain to lower prices, and they are likely to encourage more of a type of housing most existing homeowners in a neighborhood don’t want—namely, crowded, densely-packed, and urban rental dwellings built next door or just around the corner.
For many Americans, abolishing single-family zoning sounds absurd. After all, the single-family home has been central to the American Dream for generations. But for those who have been following the statements of radical Democrat lawmakers, Newsom’s moves will come as no surprise. The Left has long argued that single-family zoning is yet another example of “systemic racism,” alleging that it “excludes” minorities from certain neighborhoods. This requires, they say, an “equitable” readjustment through the increased use of multi-family housing.
The problem with this argument, however, is that over the last ten years most of those who have moved into the suburbs have been minorities. Far from a tool to impose de facto segregation, single-family zoning is emerging as one of the primary ways for minority populations, who have for decades been abandoned by the liberal politicians who represent urban centers, to escape failed cities and find a better quality of life in suburban or rural areas as part of a great melting pot of America. Moreover, abolishing single family zoning will necessarily mean a more urban America, which is exactly what many Americans of all backgrounds and colors are trying to escape today in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Housing in California is already more difficult to build than elsewhere in the country because of red-tape and environmental regulations. In fact, environmental damage has been the other main argument utilized by those who oppose the expansion of the suburbs. Suburbs, they say, require people to own cars, which they then use to drive long distances everyday to get to work, increasing pollution. Urban residents, by contrast, are more likely to use mass transit, which produces less pollution.
But as Joel Kotkin, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute has observed, this argument doesn’t make much sense in a post-COVID world, where record numbers of people are working from home, and therefore not engaging in the long commutes to work that environmental activists often cite as a source of pollution. “Huge numbers of office workers are now accustomed to working at home,” Kotkin observes. “This shift makes affordable suburban and exurban housing even more desirable. More people, including professionals, are already moving to exurban locations because they aren’t required to be physically in the office.” In fact, during the pandemic, emissions from car commuting dropped by 50% as workers worked from home. Kotkin also points out that in Southern California, which includes California’s biggest city (Los Angeles), the use of public transit has never increased beyond it 1985 peak.
Abolishing the single-family neighborhood is not going to solve the housing crisis in the once Golden State. Instead, California leaders would be better off building more single family neighborhoods that people clearly want to live in, while figuring out how to lower the insanely high regulatory costs of new construction.