Upzoning Catches on in California

Eliminating single-family zoning and other exclusionary ordinances could have major impacts on housing in some of the country's most unaffordable cities.

2 minute read

March 8, 2021, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Grizzly Point Berkeley

Dan Schreiber / Shutterstock

California cities are joining a national trend to use upzoning as a tool to increase housing affordability, make neighborhoods more accessible to more people, and fight climate change and urban sprawl. Most recently, the city of Berkeley, the birthplace of single-family zoning in the United States, voted to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies and "reform the city’s general plan with the aim to eliminate widespread bans on apartments and multi-unit residences."

Reporting for Bloomberg CityLab, Laura Bliss writes that recent actions aim to "reduce housing costs as well as to address the racist roots of laws that restrict development to single-family homes," laws which presently cover 82% of residential land in the Bay Area.

Other California cities have similarly rethought their zoning to accommodate more housing. "Last month, the Sacramento city council passed a unanimous decision to allow up to four units on virtually every residential lot. A San Jose task force voted last summer for the city to consider a similar upzoning, and South San Francisco’s city council approved a plan to study the same type of change earlier this week."

In the past, "California politics has favored the status quo preferences of existing homeowners," despite "an estimated shortage of 3.5 million homes" and a massive homelessness crisis. Now, cities are acknowledging the need for policies that allow and encourage the construction of "missing middle housing," multi-unit buildings that increase density and allow more families to afford housing near jobs and transit. The new ordinances also help cities meet the state's housing goals, which calls for more than 1.34 million new units by 2029.

While proponents caution that upzoning "shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet" and requires "complementary policies such as tenant protections and direct public investments," the tide is turning on exclusionary policies that have paralyzed housing production and worsened the housing crisis in California.

The media reaction to the recent reforms proposed in California cities has been far reaching. Farhad Majoo writes that Berkeley has "beaten the NIMBYs" in an opinion column for the New York Times. Skeptics are also taking to media, as noted in a previous Planetizen post and as expressed by some of the background and soundbites in an article by J.K. Dineen for the San Francisco Chronicle. An article by Louis Hansen for The Mercury News does a comprehensive job of detailing the politics and history leading to this groundbreaking moment in planning history.

And it's worth noting that California isn't the only state where local governments are pushing for zoning reform. Connecticut, too, is making news for a burgeoning reform movement.

Monday, March 1, 2021 in Bloomberg CityLab

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