Cities Chip Away at R-1 Zoning

By Tom Elias Palisades News Columnist

It’s become like a rite of spring: Every year, state legislators reject the most radical of many proposals set forward by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco to make housing far more dense all over California.

But that hasn’t kept some of his ideas from taking hold outside the state Capitol, by a kind of process of osmosis based on the psychological reality that the more often people hear something, the less radical it can sound.

So it’s been with Wiener’s prolonged attack on R-1 zoning, which allows just one home per lot in areas zoned that way. Part of this gradual process was the passage two years ago of a new law letting homeowners everywhere in California convert garages into residential space or build small homes known as “granny units” in their backyards.

The idea didn’t draw much opposition, as it creates new housing while also giving new sources of income to longtime homeowners retired from their jobs who need income beyond pensions or Social Security.

But Wiener kept pushing in pre-pandemic speeches for more aggressive attacks on the single-family zoning he appears to consider an abomination. Some of his message has seeped in.

The best evidence came when the city of Sacramento in January took the first step toward ending R-1 zoning within its boundaries. You could call the almost certain new zoning category R-4 because it would allow rebuilding or restructuring existing homes into up to four units on every lot in previously one-parcel, one-home areas.

The new rule probably won’t be final until late this year, as it undergoes reviews within local government. Chances are, residents will be able to add multiple units to their property starting in 2022.

This has strong support from Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the termed-out former Democratic president of the state Senate. Referring to one leafy neighborhood of largish homes fairly close to downtown and the eponymous park it surrounds, he said, “Everybody should have the opportunity to not only play in Land Park but to live in Land Park.”

So far, only two other American cities – Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis – have similar zoning, and it’s too soon to see how the new reality will eventually look there.

But the idea is taking hold elsewhere in California. Cities like San Jose, San Francisco and Berkeley are among those planning similar zoning changes. A bill now in the Legislature would allow duplexes in most current single-family areas around the state. Another would allow up to eight units per lot.

As yet, there is no flood of developers flashing wads of cash before homeowners in R-1 neighborhoods. But that could come if the new units prove popular among current apartment dwellers in denser areas.

These shifts ignore two realities: One is that owning a freestanding house in an attractive area has long been a major component of both the American and California dreams. Wiener may decry urban sprawl as wasteful and profligate, but he ignores a basic human yearning to live surrounded by greenery and open space. The second reality ignored here is that more and more office buildings are becoming largely vacant as a side effect of COVID-19.

That change will not go away even as vaccines gradually slow and then end the pandemic. Thousands of white collar businesses from law firms and insurance companies to social media and stock brokerages have sent employees home to work, finding they are at least as efficient on their own. In turn, surveys show, the majority of workers miss neither cubicle life nor long commutes.

This has already spurred an exodus from big cities to more rural and suburban areas and cities with lower rents and home prices. Sacramento itself is a major destination, while rents have dropped in places like San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. At the same time, prices are up in more outlying areas including parts of the Inland Empire.

Economics dictates that eventually, all that newly vacant office space must become housing. Combine this with a spate of new duplexes, granny flats and four-unit structures and excess California housing could soon go begging, a far cry from the shortage that has lately bedeviled this state.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.com

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