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The Racist History of Single-Family Home Zoning

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A postcard depicting the gates to Claremont Court in Berkeley. The gates were built to signify that Claremont was an exclusive residential community. And it came with a big caveat: it was a neighborhood for whites only.

As American as apple pie, the single-family home has become synonymous with individual achievement in the United States.

And for good reason. Homeownership is the main driver of wealth for most middle-class Americans, with homeowners’ median net worth a whopping 80 times larger than that of renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But that Norman Rockwell-esque image of a single home surrounded by a white picket fence comes with a loaded history.

When cities first created neighborhoods where only single-family houses were allowed, it was about more than separating homes from apartments; it was about separating white families from everyone else.

KQED’s new podcast SOLD OUT: Rethinking Housing in America takes a deep dive into the backstory behind single-family zoning and looks at how it has led to the racial segregation we still see in our neighborhoods today. Listen to episode three below. Read the transcript.

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.

We often associate single-family neighborhoods with suburbs, but many cities restrict large portions of their land to this type of building as well.


Where Did Single-Family Zoning Get Its Start? 

In none other than true-blue Berkeley, California.

The progressive Bay Area enclave was the first city in the country to implement single-family zoning. It adopted the zoning rule for the Elmwood neighborhood in 1916, making it illegal to build anything other than one home on one lot in the neighborhood.

The entrance to the Claremont neighborhood, then and now. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Why Was it Created?

Duncan McDuffie, a prominent real estate developer in Berkeley who built the Claremont Court and Uplands neighborhoods in the early 1900s, was a big champion of single-family zoning. His developments all came with racial covenants, which barred homeowners from selling or renting their homes to people of color.

But he also wanted to make sure that neighborhoods next to Claremont, including Elmwood, wouldn’t allow families of color to move in, because he thought it would lower property values. And he was especially worried about a Black-owned dance hall that was looking to move into the neighborhood next to his subdivision.

The single-family zoning designation in Elmwood prohibited the dance hall from moving in, and it also made the neighborhood more exclusive, because developers could charge more for single-family homes than they could for duplexes or cottage apartments.

What Percentage of the Bay Area’s Residential Land is Dedicated to Single-Family Zoning? 

Today, single-family homes are the main form of home-building in the Bay Area.

A recent study from UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute found that 83% of residential land in the Bay Area is devoted to single-family zoning. That means that on only 17% of the land, it’s legal to build apartments, condos, duplexes of triplexes.

And that’s not unusual. A New York Times analysis found that about 75% of the residential land in major cities across the country is devoted exclusively to single-family homes.

A single-family home in the Elk Grove suburb of Sacramento.
A single-family home in the Elk Grove suburb of Sacramento. (Courtesy Veronica Nelson)

How Does Single-Family Zoning Lead to Racial Segregation?

The same Othering & Belonging Institute study found that as you increase the percentage of single-family zoning in a city, you increase the percentage of white residents.

Part of that is because renting an apartment or duplex is less expensive than renting or buying a home. It’s also a legacy of racist housing policies, like redlining, that barred Black families from receiving federally-backed loans following the Great Depression and from the GI Bill after WWII.

Policies like these were later outlawed, but they still persist in practice, with lenders often charging higher interest rates or refusing home loans to Black buyers. Taken together, it’s helped drive a huge wealth gap between white and Black families, with white families having an average $188,200 in wealth, compared to $24,100 for Black families. That makes it harder for Black families to purchase homes in single-family neighborhoods.

What Are People Trying to Do About it? 

Minneapolis city officials voted in 2019 to ban single-family zoning. That doesn’t mean it’s illegal to build a single-family home. It means it is legal to build things like duplexes or triplexes in most of the city where only single-family homes had been allowed before.

Oregon followed suit in 2019 with a bill that allows fourplexes in most cities around the state. And in California, the city of San Jose is considering legalizing fourplexes in most neighborhoods. The City Council is expected to consider voting on the plan next spring.

There was also an effort this year to eliminate single-family zoning across California. Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ bill, SB 1120, would have allowed up to two duplexes on many single-family lots. It was approved in both the Senate and Assembly, but didn’t have enough time to get the final vote it needed before going to the governor. Housing advocates say they’ll push for it again next year.

For more in-depth reporting on the housing crisis, check out our new podcast, SOLD OUT: Rethinking Housing in America. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyNPR OneTuneIn or on your favorite podcast listening app.

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