What Is Single-Family Zoning?

Single-family zoning is a type of legal classification that restricts the kind of residential housing that can be built on a property. Under these restrictions, only single-family detached homes can be built, forbidding multifamily residential housing, such as duplexes or condominiums, which are common in more densely constructed areas.

Single-family zoning emerged in the 20th century. Scholars have argued that it—along with racially restrictive covenants and redlining—has been central to cementing segregation in many American cities. As the majority of wealth for the American household is connected to housing—as much as two-thirds, according to some estimates—it is also important for understanding the growing racial wealth gap.

Key Takeaways

  • Single-family zoning allows only a certain kind of residential housing to be built on a property, which, as the name suggests, is a single-family detached home.
  • The practice has been connected to both higher rates of segregation and higher pollution practices—in the latter case, because it encourages urban sprawl.
  • An extensive series of studies from the University of California, Berkeley on the San Francisco Bay Area reported that seven out of nine counties in the area were more segregated in 2010 than in 1980, in part because of this practice, and it further projected that the amount of racial residential segregation will rise over the next decade unless otherwise addressed.

A History of Single-Family Zoning

Single-family zoning began as a city-planning measure and a practice of land developers. From the very beginning, it was racially exclusionary—an aspect that became more explicit over time.

It started in 1916

Zoning—local laws that restrict the ways in which property is developed and used—was introduced to American cities around 1916 (although Los Angeles has examples of zoning-style rules that predate this by a few years). That was the year when several American cities adopted zoning ordinances, including New York City, which opted to approve extensive municipal legislation, making it the first to do so, according to William A. Fischel’s book Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation. The proliferation in the 1910s of low-cost freight trains and jitney buses had smoothed the way for the fast adoption of zoning laws that would follow, according to Fischel.

Fischel views zoning as an active force in the shaping of American cities. Contrary to some popular analyses of zoning practices, Fischel also argues that zoning generally is a “bottom-up institution.” In this telling, zoning spread not from progressive central planners but from popularly elected government officials. In many accounts of single-family zoning, one of the main drivers was land development in California in the early 20th century.

The California connection

In California, Mason-McDuffie Co., fronted by conservationist Duncan McDuffie—who was central to the development of the California State Parks system and at one point president of the Sierra Club—played a central role in establishing segregationist rules and using single-family zoning, in East Berkeley in particular. Language in the contracts of the neighborhoods that it erected specified racially exclusionary contracts that prevented Blacks and Asians from taking up residence. Although racially restrictive covenants were common at this point, McDuffie’s work is usually cited as the catalyst for single-family zoning to become common.

In 1916, thanks largely to McDuffie’s lobbying, the Berkeley City Council approved a zoning ordinance several months before New York’s rules. It was based, as Marc A. Weiss has written, on a similar regulation in Los Angeles and court decisions that upheld it. However, the Berkeley ordinance was notable, Weiss writes, because it distinguished among single-family and other sorts of residential purposes.

According to Maya Tulip Lorey, McDuffie’s company wanted to build “private residence parks” in Berkeley, which would set up a clear distinction between the secure, steadily growing property investments in their communities and the harsh, unpredictable, undesirable cities. Part of the packaging that made these so attractive were the price points of these properties, clauses that disallowed the building of multifamily homes on the land, and clauses that disallowed operating businesses inside of these communities, which were targeted specifically at Asian and Black communities.

Guaranteeing racial sameness

Racial sameness, which attracted affluent White buyers, was an important part of the stable, steady development that McDuffie envisioned for his company’s neighborhoods. Eventually, McDuffie lobbied the local government for changes to the land-use rules in Berkeley to safeguard his community development projects against possible demographic changes in the areas around those projects.

Although initially hidden, the racial component was important. “While the deed and covenant restrictions alluded to in the Claremont Park pamphlet are cloaked in euphemisms, the Mason-McDuffie Company makes clear in its legal contracts that only higher-income Caucasian buyers are welcome,” Lorey writes.

It didn’t take too long to become transparent. By 1929, says Lorey, the customary Mason-McDuffie Co. contract specified that nobody could live on the property who wasn’t of “pure Caucasian blood.” This sort of unremittingly racist covenant was common then and, apparently, unremarkable. Lorey shows that by 1935, the covenant was listed next to neutral facts, such as taxes and surrounding areas, in advertising materials.

Growth controls

Later on, with the development of the interstate highway system and the inflation in home values, “growth controls” became quite common as tools that local communities used as incentives, with zoning, to slow growth in high-demand areas. The bulk of land-use regulations passed since 1970, according to Fischel, has originated from state and federal initiatives. These have tended to be more restrictive rather than less, and they have rarely tried to overrule the desires of local residents.

How Single-Family Zoning Contributes to Racial Inequality

A 2015 UCLA study, using data from the 95 biggest American cities, established that policies that restrict land use are correlated with higher levels of “income segregation” than those that don’t, often creating rich enclaves that cause metropolitan problems. Further studies, including a five-part series from the University of California, Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, have corroborated the link between levels of segregation and restrictive zoning laws.

The Berkeley study, which used a fine-tooth comb on racial segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, also reported that seven out of nine counties in the area were more segregated in 2010 than in 1980. It further projected that the amount of racial residential segregation will rise over the next decade unless otherwise addressed.

The Berkeley investigation turned up increasing levels of Latinx and Asian segregation and a persistent amount of Black segregation, though there had been a dip in the overall amounts of Black segregation. Other land-use restrictions, such as low-density zones, have been connected to smaller Latinx and Black populations as well.

Critics of single-family zoning laws categorize the ill effects of these regulations across both environmental and social equity lines. They argue that it has hurt the environment because it has led to suburban and urban sprawl, with cities building out across large areas of land because they were not able to develop in a more concentrated manner. This, in turn, has led to an increased dependence on cars, which contributes to pollution and creates longer commutes.

In the social equity realm, critics say that this practice has restricted the housing supply and hindered inclusion. In combination with other practices—including restrictive covenants and redlining—single-family zoning has excluded minorities from prosperous neighborhoods. The cumulative effect of this has been to shut out minorities from accessing wealth, because, as noted above, as much as two-thirds of wealth for the American household is connected to housing.

Critics are quick to point out that removing single-family zoning doesn’t make it illegal to build single-family homes; it only allows for other types of homes, such as multiplexes, to also be built.

Proposals to Rectify Inequality from Single-Family Zoning

In assessing racial segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute has suggested that the goal of racial integration policies is twofold: to preserve integration where it already exists, and to incentivize it where it doesn’t. Accomplishing these twin goals will require undoing restrictive land-use policies, especially single-family zoning, “a direct impediment to the development of affordable housing” and other integrationist policies, according to the study. Numerous other papers have suggested that policies that overturn restrictive land-use policies should be adopted to build out multifamily housing.

A 2019 article from the Journal of the American Planning Association claims that the arguments in favor of preserving exclusionary laws are weak, in part because they rely on community preferences and aesthetics, which seem to ignore the racism and classicism that established those neighborhoods in the first place.

The use of “inclusionary zoning,” a regulatory tool that requires developers to give subsidies for an amount of lower-than-market rates, has led to mixed results. A 2021 George Mason University study, for instance, found that this sort of zoning drove up the market-rate prices in the Baltimore-Washington corridor when mandated, and that optional versions of the program tended to be unsuccessful as a tool to create affordable housing. A 2009 study, on the other hand, found that inclusionary zoning caused a “marginally significant increase” in multifamily housing prices, although it didn’t decrease the prices of single-family housing.

Legislative Remedies

In recent years, several cities and states have passed legislation that would end the practice of single-family zoning. Minneapolis, for example, voted in 2019 to allow multiplexes in places in the city where single-family zoning laws had banned them. The Oregon legislature passed a bill in 2019 that allowed property owners to build non-single-family housing on residential properties.

The housing crisis in California, a state whose cities have some of the highest housing prices in the country, has put the practice to legislative scrutiny. In 2021, the California state Senate passed two bills that would undo single-family zoning rules across the state: SB-9 and SB-10.


What Is Single-Family Zoning?

Single-family zoning restricts the building of new homes in a given residential area to single-family detached homes.

What Are the Origins of Single-Family Zoning?

The first such zoning law was enacted in 1916 in Los Angeles, with New York City and some other cities following suit in the same year.

What Is the Purpose of Single-Family Zoning?

On its surface, the law’s purpose is to create residential areas that are less densely constructed than urban ones. In practice, however, single-family zoning has led to higher rates of racial segregation, concentrating wealth in the hands of Whites, as well as greater air pollution, due to the fact that it encourages urban sprawl.

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