The Problem with "Preserving" Single-Family Zoning in San Diego

Earlier today, I was listening to the VOSD podcast interview of City Council candidate Joe LaCava.  Scott Lewis does a great job and I'm a fan of Joe and hope he gets elected to the City Council.  But one thing really stuck out to me:  Joe's strong support for preserving single family residential zones in San Diego.  This is a position that pops up everywhere in the city, from La Jolla to Carmel Valley to Hillcrest to North Park.  I totally understand this position, especially in light of the district Joe is hoping to represent.  In general, the older single family neighborhoods in our city are really nice and everyone would love to live there.  Think of Bird Rock, Mission Hills, Burlingame, Kensington, Coronado (ok different city), and Sunset Cliffs.  These are really nice areas to live with quality infrastructure, low crime, good schools, beautiful houses, and great neighbors.  I get that people in these areas wouldn't want anything to change.  The general position is that single family neighborhoods are inherently nice and would be irreparably altered by allowing in a little more density.

The problem, however, is that this didn't just come about organically by luck or hard work of the neighbors in those communities, or that single family homes are naturally nicer than other neighborhoods.  These contentions are hard to believe when we look at our history.  Take a look at this map:

If you want to play around with it, it's also on this page overlaid on Google Maps.  If you know San Diego, you'll see all of the nice neighborhoods are generally colored green or blue.  The less nice neighborhoods are in the red area, with the in-between areas colored yellow.

This is a map from 1936, almost 80 years ago, when it was created by the federal government for a housing program informally called "redlining."  This was a policy that on its face was racist: white families were allowed to obtain government-backed mortgages, but "negroes and foreigners," and those that lived near them, were unable to get a mortgage.  We aren't talking about subtle racism, this was straight-up discrimination.  The areas with minorities were marked as red and banks would not issue mortgages in those areas. The effects spread beyond mortgages, resulting in a decline of the neighborhoods where blacks and "foreigners" lived.  If you want a great read on the effects, you can do no better than reading The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  San Diego never suffered the same degree of racism as other cities with larger black populations, but this was happening nationwide and the effects were not pretty.

Redlining is gone, but as Coates shows, the effects still linger.  The redlined neighborhoods tend to be poorer, have higher crime, worse infrastructure, and worse schools.  Many will blame this on the character of the inhabitants, but Coates makes an irrefutable case that this was by design.  Now, 80 years later, our city is still shaped by the scars of these old racist policies.  In fact, the racial segregation hasn't changed much.  Here is a map of our current demographics, with whites represented by blue and minorities by other colors:

current map

(courtesy of this awesome siteImage Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator))

As you can see, the racial segregation persists. We've expanded geographically since 1936, but the red areas on the 1936 map still tend to contain the minorities living in our city.  I bet that this same effect could be seen if you look at crime maps or school ratings. It's hard to argue this is just a coincidence.

So what does this have to do with single family homes?  At least in San Diego, our zoning map largely follows the old redlining maps: racism is baked into our city design by no fault of our own.  Take a look at this map and notice the overlap:  our current single family zones are mostly found in the old blue and green zones, and the denser housing in the redlined areas.  At a basic level, this makes sense: if you and your neighbors are prohibited from getting a mortgage, you'll probably have to rent an apartment.

So, here is what we know:  our government-created housing system, across the nation, was expressly racist for decades.  Not only were different races segregated, the money could flow only to the white neighborhoods.  As a result, certain areas gained nicer houses and better infrastructure and schools.  The racist system is gone, but the effects remain.  Our current single-family zones tend to be in these nicer areas.  No one can question that a single family home generally costs more than an apartment or condo. In direct relation to that, single-family zoning takes up more land and crowds out more inhabitants. Thus, by maintaining our zoning, we are continuing the exclusion of minorities and citizens with low income from our nicest neighborhoods with the best schools and safest streets.

I am not suggesting that any supporter of single-family zoning or residents of single-family homes in general is racist or intends to exclude people; they are merely trying to preserve the wonderful neighborhoods that they already have and I don't blame them for that. But the effect of this preservation is exclusion.  If we could increase the density in the nice, single-family zones, we could allow more people to enjoy the 80-year head start given to these neighborhoods.  Although a current owner can be expected to fight to maintain the status quo, this position is less defensible when trying to consider the welfare of the city as a whole.

Of course, most would argue that changing the zoning would "ruin" the neighborhood.  The thinking is that if our single-family neighborhoods are nice and our denser areas are less nice, this must be a result of the density.  But as this history shows, although the correlation between density and "niceness" may be clear, causation is not.  Go visit the Upper East Side in Manhattan and argue that density and wealth can't coexist.  Given the history described above, it seems the more logical answer is that the nice areas are nice because the government poured resources into them and the less-nice areas suffered from the absence of funding and care. You can't blame a whole class or race for failing to maintain nice single-family houses when they were essentially prohibited by law from doing so.  The density is only a byproduct.  In fact, density done right can have many benefits.  Even if La Jolla is not interested in high rises, allowing accessory-dwelling units, smaller lots, and duplexes could double the population easily without changing the entire culture of the neighborhood.  We don't need to put skyscrapers on Mount Soledad, but we can relax some zoning standards.

This is why I have a problem with arguments that we must preserve single-family housing in our urban areas.  Not because I am inherently against single family homes, but rather because I believe the most people possible should be able to enjoy these beautiful neighborhoods created by our unfortunate history.  As Coates states in another piece, "Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked."  Shouldn't we want our best neighborhoods to be available to as many people as possible?  If we don't change our housing policy that has resulted in inequality for at least 80 years, why should we expect anything to change in the next 80 years?  It seems more drastic measures are warranted.  The best place to start is revisiting our zoning.