After Sacramento recently took the bold step of becoming the first California city to do away with traditional single-family zoning, some San Jose residential advocates and residents are hoping that the Silicon Valley capital can build from the momentum.
San Jose is considering a similar zoning move that would allow up to four residential units on a single family lot – a concept San Jose calls “opportunity housing.”
Living in a neighborhood where every property has a house and a surrounding yard is an ideal element deeply embedded in American life, and zoning single-family homes ensures cities adhere to that standard. Over time, single-family zone restrictions combined with racially explicit exclusion practices have often maintained the exclusion of low-income and colored people from areas of high opportunity.
Across the country, it is illegal to build anything other than a single family home in 75% of American residential area. In San Jose, this is the case for about 94% of the residential area.
As city and state officials across the country grapple with growing economic inequality and worsening housing shortages, many are beginning to question the merits of such restrictions and see densification of single-family neighborhoods as a promising way to increase their housing stock, specifically: “Lack of middle-class housing for middle-income people.
“There are two objectives here: combating the racial and economic exclusion that has been going on for more than 80 years in the past … and providing opportunities for people who live in a single family setting and want to attend these schools but cannot afford a single family home “Said Michael Brilliot, deputy director of urban planning for San Jose.
City officials in San Jose and Sacramento say many residents would not notice much of a difference in their neighborhood. Both plan to maintain similar height restrictions, limit a home’s proximity to the property line, and ensure that historical safeguards are in place.
The proposed changes – although not a new concept for cities across the country – have created fear among homeowners, worried about falling property values, parking shortages and an overall deterioration in their quality of life and neighborhood character.
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 21: A multi-unit housing development at 710 North 2nd Street in San Jose, Calif. On Thursday, January 21, 2021. The sectioned structure was built in the 1920s and serves as an example of what is denser Apartment types in single-family neighborhoods could look like. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)
The cities of Minneapolis and Portland, as well as the state of Oregon, have all enacted regulations that have eliminated the traditional single-family zone in recent years. A similar bill was introduced into California law last year but has died. With the unanimous approval of the city council on Jan. 19 to move forward with its plan, Sacramento could be the first California city to officially carry out the relocation across the city.
In San Jose, it remains to be seen how the city will proceed with a similar proposed zone change.
In 2019, the San Jose City Council instructed its Task Force for the General Plan 2040 to consider the approval of duplex, triplex and fourplex apartments on individual lots only in residential areas near major transit corridors. That summer, however, the task force overwhelmingly voted in favor of recommending that the city carry out the zoning in all residential areas of the city.
The municipal council is expected to decide in June whether to push ahead with the citywide recommendation or limit it to districts near transit corridors. If the Council adopts either proposal, it will not result in an immediate reallocation. City officials expect to gather public feedback, conduct environmental and displacement studies and develop design guidelines over the next 18 months before the council reaches a final vote in late 2022.
At this point it is unclear which direction the council will lean, but with the newly established, workers-backed majority in power, the citywide recommendation likely has a greater chance of moving forward than at any other point in the past decade.
The Mayor of San Jose, Sam Liccardo, supports the densification of single-family neighborhoods near transit corridors, but not throughout the city. Nevertheless, he intends to “stay open” in the coming months.
“I do not take the need for densification lightly, but I am also aware that if it is not done in cooperation with the community it can really backfire and many of our urban goals and objectives can really be undermined,” said Liccardo .
Roberta Moore, a South San Jose resident who is a member of the General Plan Task Force, hopes the city council will stand by the mayor and only densify the transit corridors. Moore has a long list of concerns if the changes roll out across the city, including the overwhelming aging infrastructure in historic neighborhoods, increased pressure on the city’s “already underfunded services” like the police, and the drop in property values due to the change the character of a neighborhood.
“This is the unplanned planning approach,” said Moore. “Don’t you think that people who work hard to afford a particular lifestyle can count on it? That would change that completely. “
The concept of allowing up to four plexes on a single family lot is nothing new to San Jose, or even most cities across the country. According to a balance sheet by the nonprofit housing company SV @ Home, around 5,500 of these apartment types are already distributed across the city in San Jose – most of them were built in the suburbs before World War II and the relocation of the country towards urban sprawl.
Michael Lane, director of public policy at SPUR, a nonprofit for Public Order and Residents of South San Jose, described the proposed changes to the zones as a “return to old urbanism” and a “traditional approach that is more sustainable for our families and our environment” .
“We know that when this becomes a bidding process, wealthier households can pay those higher rents and then cannibalize the existing housing stock, making it even more difficult for low-income families to live in San Jose,” said Lane, who supported a city-wide layer. “This will only create more opportunities for homeowners and potential residents who live in these neighborhoods and want to enjoy the amenities.”