August 3, 2021

Is Single-Family Zoning racist, and does it matter?

Matthew Fleischer, The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor, has called for the end of single-family zoning, for which he blames racist planners.

Single-family zoning was born of Bay Area racism. End it for good.


A bill introduced this week by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has given San Francisco the chance to remove what is arguably the city’s most toxic monument to racism and segregation. And it’s one that many city residents have proved themselves aggressively attached to: single-family zoning.

Single-family zoning, however, is … a unique product of American racism. More specifically, it’s a product of Bay Area racism.

The concept of single-family zoning was born in Berkeley in 1916 — and its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a “negro dance hall” from setting up shop on “a prominent corner.”

You may ask: What do single-family homes have to do with any of this? Why would planners not just ban Black dance halls or Asian laundries outright if their intent was outwardly discriminatory?

Well, planners across the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, had been trying to do just that for decades. Courts wouldn’t let them.

After years of targeting Chinese laundries with race-based regulations with mixed success, San Francisco went full apartheid in 1890 by passing the Bingham Ordinance, a measure that explicitly banned Chinese residents from certain areas of the city under penalty of jail. It was thrown out almost immediately by the courts, as were subsequent efforts at openly racialized zoning.

The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, and, despite the racism of the day, courts generally refused to allow out-and-out apartheid when it came to land use.

But that didn’t stop Bay Area planners from racialized scheming…

Since detached homes in 1916 were almost exclusively owned by white men, single-family zoning allowed planners to craft a discriminatory ordinance masked in race-neutral language. In effect, protecting detached homes from other “incompatible” uses meant protecting white people from people of color and their businesses. Planners across the country got wind of the ruse and followed suit. …

Single-family zoning is almost nonexistent in cities in other developed parts of the world.

“There is no reasonable professional planning rationale for this type of zoning,” says Brent Toderian, a Canadian planning consultant who has worked in municipalities across the globe, including California. “I defy any planner to explain why residences of various sizes and types need to be physically separated or protected from one another.”

“Racial, classist or economic segregation is always a factor.” …

To be clear, ending single-family zoning does not mean bulldozing every detached house in the city. Nor does it mean that everyone who prefers living in a detached house is racist. We also need to set reasonable expectations for what it will accomplish. Ending single-family zoning isn’t a panacea for the housing crisis. Nor is it reparation for past ills. It doesn’t even guarantee racial equity in housing.

It is a symbolic and pragmatic first step toward righting a historical wrong. It is both moral and essential. And it is long overdue.


Calls to abolish single-family zoning – even though technically it doesn’t exist in Vancouver – will get louder as the both the Vancouver Plan report and the civic election approach.  Its symbolic value in a time of anti-racism is an irresistible target.  Politicians, incumbent or aspiring, will have to take a stand.

I’d be very, very cautious.

First, because the narrative is misleading – not because, as Brent Toderian notes in the editorial, that racial segregation wasn’t a factor, but because it wasn’t the dominant or necessary one.  For a community like Berkeley in the 1920s (or Vancouver in the time of Bartholomew), race was not a threat to the overwhelming white majority (in Canada, 96 percent of the population).  More significantly, migration was dropping fast to an historic low:

Racial differences where it mattered were in the American South; in Canada, the distinction was language-based.

And again, not that there wasn’t segregation reflected in land use, as evident in our Chinatown; it just wasn’t the driving force for what became single-family zoning.   If there was a single social factor, it was class – predominantly the way white people divided themselves.  And even in the 1920s, apartment buildings had a place in upper-class communities.  If anything, abundant floor-space was a better way of distinguishing the social status of a homeowner or apartment dweller.  (It rather still is.)

So what were the reasons?

There was, as the editorial acknowledges, the separation of uses to avoid noxious conflicts.

But I think the primary reason why single-family zoning emerged in the 1920s was an economic reality: land was cheap and newly accessible.  Before the electric streetcar (and then the automobile), cities were dense and mixed by land use and social status because they had to be.  Walking was, except for the elites and aristocratic, the only practical form of travel; land was consequently expensive.  That all changed once ‘suburbs’ became possible, starting in the mid-19th century with the advent of rail.

Land prices dropped to the point where even working-class people could afford enough property to imitate the rich and build their own homes, separate from every other, and have the luxury of a front yard and the necessity of a rear garden.  That’s why Vancouver jumped over all the other forms of housing, from tenements, apartments, row-housing and even duplexes, and went straight to single-family, from Strathcona to Fairview to East Vancouver – working-class neighbourhoods all.

People, no matter their class or race, like that stuff.  They love the garden city it makes possible,  Of course class matters; that’s a human consideration in every culture, and when it is synonymous with race it can be toxic.  But it doesn’t go away with a change of colour on the zoning map.

The reason for the push to eliminate single-family zoning is cost: any form of it is just so expensive – because of the land, not the building.  And indeed, the ‘single’ in RS-1 started to disappear as a function of the price back in the 1960s, after most of the open tracts of land in Vancouver were gone. Whether illegal secondary suite or de-facto duplex in the Vancouver Special, it wasn’t race that did it.  (Indeed, the Special is very much a product of the Punbjabi need to accommodate extended families in a practical way, who then made their fortunes in construction and real estate.)

Those vocally calling for an end to single-family zoning because of its presumed racist roots, thinking that a coalition of impoverished millennials and people of colour will provide the political support, will instead confront an uncomfortable surprise.  Those most rising up in opposition to a change of scale and character in their community, depriving them of what they thought the zoning guaranteed, won’t all look just like white west-side professionals.   There will be a coalition, all right, but it won’t be raising a banner of social justice.  It will be defending the status quo and the heritage which, even if it isn’t theirs, will be what they value.

In the end, though, the reason not to pursue a policy of overt elimination of this particular zoning is because it’s just not necessary.  Economic self-interest will do a pretty good job, which, if combined with (ironically) Brent Toderian’s strategy of change that is ‘invisible, hidden and gentle’ (secondary suites, duplexes, and small apartments that look rather like large houses), allow neighbourhoods to change incrementally and happily.

Will it make housing more affordable?  Maybe marginally, depending more on factors like interest rates and immigration.  But eliminating RS-1 in its various permutations won’t do it either.

Affordability requires solutions beyond the borders of Vancouver, or a Grand Bargain-type strategy where high-density development can be accommodated without displacement, whether a Marine Gateway or Senakw, with affordability requirements traded off for density.

Spending a lot of political capital to eliminate in one big sweep a presumably racist zoning will not justify the modest return in supply or affordability, and it’s guaranteed to really piss people off, regardless of their colour.


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  1. “Preserving neighbourhood character” is an inherently loaded term whose baggage is willfully ignored by its proponents. Preservation is such a noble purpose among a certain cohort, how could it possibly be misused? You don’t have to be a cartoon racist to be disturbed by change. But it doesn’t hurt.

  2. Gordon, nice, informative editorial, but i noticed one statement that betrays a racial bias:

    “Indeed, the Vancouver Special is very much a product of the Punbjabi need to accommodate extended families in a practical way, who then made their fortunes in construction and real estate.”

    Says who?

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