top of page

Opinion: Single-family zoning may be on its way out

As more cities across the country are scrapping single-family zoning laws to address a nationwide affordable housing crunch, San Jose says it’s not ready to take the plunge.

Owning a home — the legacy that defined American postwar democracy — is an ideal that is being challenged today as many cities opt for alternative solutions to provide easier access to housing.

Now that ideal no longer seems a reality for many, as housing has become an exorbitant expense. So cities such as San Jose say they need to address the region’s growing housing crisis by investing in building denser housing — fast — and doing away with the sprawl of single-family homes.

In San Jose, 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes, differing significantly from other California cities such as San Francisco, which is at 37 percent and Los Angeles at 75 percent.

San Jose is focusing on executing its general four year review plan, dubbed by city officials as the city’s preamble to SB50, a statewide bill that was shelved earlier this year aimed at streamlining housing production around transit corridors.

While the plan is focused on creating denser housing in urban corridors — there’s a catch.

“There has been this concern about the impact of the redevelopment of the single-family character,” said Michael Brilliot, deputy director of the city’s planning department.

According to Brillot, San Jose is “pretty much built out,” and has been done building single-family homes for more than 15 years — unlike other cities in the country.

“We don’t have a lot of vacant land left. But we need to densify,” added Brillot. “We need to transform the suburban city into a more urban place. So the bargain was, we’re going to develop high-density housing around our urban corridors but in exchange for that we’re going to add policies that further preserve our existing single-family homes.”

That means the city will not allow a developer to go into a residential neighborhood, buy four or five different properties and knock them down to build taller developments in that same neighborhood. Instead, San Jose aims to allow dense developments only in certain corridors, particularly around commercial streets and transportation.

San Jose officials are not looking to ban single-family zoning altogether as other major cities, such as Minneapolis, Seattle and for the first time the entire state of Oregon, are attempting to do.

Minneapolis effectively ended single-family zoning by opening up all residential neighborhoods to multi-unit housing, while in Seattle, sweeping changes upzoned 27 residential neighborhoods, allowing for taller and denser buildings. In both cases, developers can build multi-unit residences in neighborhoods that were previously only designated for single-family homes.

Other cities in the Bay Area are looking to follow in these footsteps, as San Francisco said it’s exploring rezoning in single-family neighborhoods and Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf has endorsed the idea.

While San Jose officials recognize the trend, many still say it’s not the right solution for the region. Instead, Mayor Sam Liccardo supports banning single-family developments near commercial corridors and transportation hubs — not citywide.

“Let’s face it — most of the Bay Area is still suburban,” Liccardo said in a panel to other local mayors last week. “You got lots of family housing and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments, at least not if you don’t want them to burn down City Hall.”

Although Liccardo supports protecting the character of existing suburban neighborhoods, he isn’t opposed to up-zoning in certain neighborhoods where it makes sense. Allowing the construction of “medium-density” buildings such as duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes in between urban villages and residential spaces can provide “a more gradual transition,” he said.

In most American cities, preserving the suburban ideal is vital, as 75 percent of them prohibit building anything other than a single family home in residential spaces. Most of San Jose’s zoning is single-family, so if rezoning isn’t an option right now, city officials are turning to other solutions to build.

For neighborhoods where single-family homes are inevitable, the mayor proposed a program that incentivizes homeowners to build secondary granny units and rent them out to low-income families. In exchange, homeowners will get forgivable loans and some of the costs covered by the city.

“So you’re dealing with a lot of single family housing — we got to figure out ways to get the housing on those parcels,” added Liccardo.

While the mayor hopes this idea catches on, some experts say outreach efforts are essential in promoting any new kind of housing proposal — especially those that challenge single-family housing.

“For this to even occur in San Jose, it will require an immense amount of true community engagement,” said Michelle Huttenhoff, San Jose’s policy director for SPUR. “I think people resist change because they’re concerned, they’re fearful. The unknown is just concerning. It is more important than ever to have a strong civic engagement communication, strategy, and policy from a city level.”

According to Huttenhoff, SPUR is advocating that the city create a team solely focused on community engagement that will go beyond the minimal requirement to inform residents about potential developments in a neighborhood.

But not all residents agree that this would do much. Many don’t see how building more high-density housing in their neighborhoods could solve the region’s crisis. Some residents are worried that new developments can “skyrocket” prices, change the “small neighborhood” feel and stretch limited community resources.

“How are you going to justify all of this high-density housing bringing more people into the city to sleep, but not work?” said Elizabeth Estensen, president of the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association. “That hurts the entire city because it puts more pressure on roads, on travel. Our sewer system, our water — all of that is going to be impacted.”

But despite what city officials say, Estensen said she sees “several, several complexes” being built in otherwise single-family home neighborhoods like Willow Glen.

Still, Estensen said that granny units are a solution that residents “would respond well to.”

“I’m born and raised here, my children are sixth generation Willow Glen, and granny units have always been something that people have rented out,” said Estensen. ” I think it’s positive.”

• • •

Written by Nadia Lopez of the San Jose Spotlight. This essay also appeared in California Political Review.

bottom of page