How San Diego’s 100 years of zoning racially segregated the city
As a child, Ricardo Flores moved away from apartment-filled City Heights, where his extended family lived, to the relative quiet of single-family homes in Rancho San Diego. Flores said he stuck out.
“In my neighborhood, it was pretty much white kids and I was the only brown person,” he said. “And then when I’d go visit my cousins, it was only people of color.”
At the time, he never questioned why that was. He thinks most people don’t.
Now, he’s executive director of San Diego’s Local Initiative Support Corporation, which advocates for housing reforms.
“We honestly probably don’t even understand how we’re living here and others are living over there,” he said. “We just assume that it’s because we went to college, we worked hard. Our parents did the same. But, in reality, it’s much deeper than that. It’s much more sinister than that, actually.”
Sinister, Flores said, because that separation between people of color and white people was intentional.
Berkeley created one of the first zoning laws in 1916.
White neighbors wanted to push out two Japanese-owned laundries, a Chinese-owned laundry and a dance hall used by Black people. So they enforced residential zoning in those locations.
A year later, the Supreme Court ruled racial zoning unconstitutional. But, in some ways, it didn’t matter. Single-family zoning worked just as well to segregate.
San Diego adopted it in 1923.
In some neighborhoods, developers can build multifamily housing such as apartments, duplexes and townhomes — housing more affordable to nonwhite residents, who are less wealthy on average than white residents.
The rest of residential land is restricted to less-affordable single-family homes.
Flores said that, at the time San Diego adopted single-family zoning, homeowners had to put 50% down and pay it off in five years.
“So you were always talking about a very exclusive group of white people that are homeowners,” Flores said. “And so now you just add this layer of making it even more exclusive, and bingo — you've created a mechanism in which you can reinforce what you're trying to do, which is segregation, and keep certain people out of certain neighborhoods and accessing certain amenities.”
Planners managed to segregate San Diego without saying the word “race.”
Berkeley researchers wanted to understand the impact of the past 100 years of zoning in San Diego, so they categorized every plot in the city. They found that single-family-only zoning takes up 81% of residential land.
They also found that single-family neighborhoods are wealthier and whiter, with higher home values. And they engage in something researcher Samir Gambhir called “resource hoarding.”
“The non-single-family zones have fewer resources, fewer good schools and larger commutes,” he said. “And that really restricts the wealth generation for people of color.”
He said the patterns held across the country.
Under zoning, zip codes became powerful predictors of someone’s education, income, wealth, health and even how long they live.
Single-family zoning became a proxy for excluding people of color, according to Gambhir’s co-researcher Joshua Cantong. It funneled lower-income people of color into the few multi-family zoned neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods were also often zoned for mixed industrial use, disproportionately burdening San Diegans of color with the effects of pollution.
Reform efforts and pushback
Cities across the country have voted to end single-family zoning in recent years, including Berkeley. But, Cantong said, it’s an uphill battle.
“I don’t know if we can underestimate how powerful homeowner resistance is to retaining single-family zoning,” Cantong said, “because generally wealthy, white, affluent, male, older constituents are more involved in planning processes.”
In other words, it’s often white wealthy homeowners who have the free time and resources to go to city meetings and argue their side.
“Homeowners resist multifamily housing development within their single-family zone predominant communities because they want to retain their property values and community character,” Cantong said, “where community character is kind of a liberal euphemism for racial demographics.”
Cantong said renters, on the other hand, tended to oppose the development of apartments at market rate, but support the development of affordable housing.
“Renters oppose multifamily housing development on the basis of fears of displacement, eviction and rent increases,” Cantong said. “But it's entirely distinct from homeowner resistance.”
Flores said the reasons opponents give for pushback had changed over the years.
“At first it was: ‘You’re a fire hazard.’ No, that’s not true,” he said. “‘You’re going to destroy land values.’ No, that’s not true.”
In recent debates, San Diegans have also voiced concerns that bringing in more units into single-family neighborhoods could create parking and garbage issues and less privacy.
"It'll turn San Diego into a slum," said Carol Hackim, a real estate broker who spoke at a Planning Commission hearing.
Flores said the main argument now was that eliminating single-family zoning would change the “character” of the neighborhoods.
“‘You’re going to change the look of my neighborhood.’ What I would wonder is: Are they talking about the buildings? Because we can replicate buildings,” he said. “But you can't say that this person can't live here or that person can't live here because they don't fit the aesthetics.”
What’s at stake
Regardless of the reasons, Flores said San Diego — exploding with population growth — couldn’t afford to hold onto zoning restraints that were made when the city only contained about 100,000 people.
“Here we are, 1.3 million, and we have this antiquated zoning policy,” he said. “And we see it in homelessness. We see it in skyrocketing housing prices — over a million dollars. We see it in segregation.”
“We're just going to keep shoving more and more people into 15% of the city,” Flores said, “while 80% of the city just sits there and watches. That's unsustainable.”
Gambhir said San Diego probably had the most extensive accessory dwelling unit policy in the country. It allows San Diegans to build “granny flats” or “casitas” on the same lot as their existing house, and it has created some new housing.
But it’s not enough to meet the need: more than 13,500 new homes per year through 2029, according to the latest city assessment. (The city is already lagging in meeting that goal.)
Cantong said ending single-family zoning was a step toward affordable housing, but it’s not enough. The new housing created tends to be affordable only to moderate- and higher-income families.
Flores doesn’t dispute this.
He fought for a proposal — introduced by Mayor Todd Gloria — that would end single-family zoning in about half of the city, including some areas the city deemed its high- or highest-resourced neighborhoods.
It wouldn’t force property owners to develop more units, just give them the option. It would also allow the purchase or renting of smaller, subdivided plots of land — 1,000 square feet instead of the current 5,000 — that could be priced more affordably.
Planners voted to hold back that proposal for further workshopping.
Flores estimated that the price of the new higher-density homes would be about $550,000, which he said would be affordable to moderate-income earners and increase the overall value of the land.
If moderate-income earners could purchase homes, he argued, it could free up existing apartments for lower-income earners. Supply and demand — increase overall housing stock and prices will eventually come down.
Advocates for ending single-family zoning, including Flores, also frame it as a key to slowing climate change by limiting urban sprawl.
But, at the core of ending single-family zoning, Flores sees an even simpler mission — to finally fulfill a goal of the Civil Rights Movement: integration.
“It's as simple as people of color living and growing up with white kids,” he said. “We have a segment of our society that does not grow up with people of color. And then they achieve power and status, and they reinforce those bad decisions because they don’t grow up with people that are different than them.”
Flores plans to continue rallying support for the proposal before bringing it back to the commission.