San Francisco Was Shaped by Racist Housing Laws. Will a Fix Be Racist Too?

At the nonprofit San Francisco Foundation, which focuses on housing and economic equity, senior director Khanh Russo supports zoning reform but says it must go hand-in-hand with economic reforms. If poor and working people can’t own homes, basic housing inequity will remain. “Generational wealth is passed through property,” Russo tells The Frisc. “When communities are excluded” from homeownership, “it impacts their ability to build wealth.”


 

In June of 2020, San Francisco evicted a senior citizen from atop Telegraph Hill — the 63-year-old Christopher Columbus statue — in response to decades of complaints that the monument celebrated colonialism and white supremacy.

Yet the city has left other racist legacies in place, not on pedestals but woven into rules that govern how and where housing can be built in our neighborhoods. Toppling Columbus required a crane, but reforming racially motivated 20th-century rules, enacted in response to nonwhites moving in, will be a heavier lift, because there’s little agreement what antiracist development laws should look like.

While Minneapolis and Portland have done away with rules that only allow one single family house per lot, and Berkeley recently voted to do so (but hasn’t actually crafted new rules), San Francisco has been resistant, even as California’s housing hawks — led by state Senator Scott Weiner, who represents the city — have chased their white whale, pardon the term, of single-family zoning.

According to a much-cited UC Berkeley study last year, some 82 percent of residential lots in the Bay Area are exclusively zoned for single-family homes. That figure is much lower in San Francisco per the Planning Department, at only about 37 percent for what’s known as RH-1. Another 16 percent are zoned at the slightly denser RH-2, which still puts vast tracts of neighborhoods like the Portola and the Sunset at the lowest densities, and not at a particularly efficient use of buildable land in our compact city.

Equity equals inclusion

Racist exclusion was common before World War II. Berkeley was the birthplace of single-family zoning, natch, way back in 1916. Even after the U.S. passed antidiscrimination laws in the 1960s, cities still crafted land-use rules to make housing more scarce and exclusive, keeping out mixed uses and pricing out low-income and working people.

Today most Bay Area cities remain segregated by race and class, on account of what kind of housing gets built where. “In my former work about urban planning and public meetings, there was no hiding how people really felt about affordable housing” — which is to say, how they felt about the kinds of people they assumed would come live near them, says Jamila Henderson, a former analyst for Boston city planners and now an associate at the Oakland nonprofit think tank PolicyLink.

While Berkeley’s city council voted unanimously to strike down single-family zoning citywide, San Francisco is moving much more cautiously. So far, the city’s boldest proposal isn’t very bold at all. Sup. Rafael Mandelman wants to upgrade residential lots for up to four units, but only on corners and within a half-mile of major transit lines.

“Our approach is to do this in a way that is broadly distributed across the city, such as on corner lots generally, rather than targeting increased housing development into certain neighborhoods,” Mandelman says in a statement to The Frisc. “This is a change that we would expect to see play out over the next 50 years, not the next five years.”

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Even so, backlash came swiftly. Board of Supervisors president Shamann Walton, whose district includes the Bayview, argued that Mandelman’s proposal could further destabilize the city’s shrinking Black population, and that developers would target areas like his district to buy up cheap properties and turn them into pricey multiunit buildings. “I guess people really don’t want Black people and other communities of color in this city,” he told the SF Chronicle in February.

Ghosts of the Fillmore

Walton’s objection speaks to another part of our racist development history that continues to haunt San Francisco: so-called urban renewal, when the Black community of the Fillmore was gutted by city planners.

“There’s a tendency to … forget that people’s fears are real,” says Todd David, director of the YIMBY-leaning group Housing Action Coalition. “We need to engage with people on this issue. Nobody likes to be dictated to.”

Walton did not respond to requests for comment, but other critics of the new rezoning push also see ominous examples in recent history. Margaretta Lin, director of the Oakland housing initiative Just Cities, says that without protections like eviction moratoriums and rental assistance for existing tenants, “developers are going to focus on neighborhoods where they can make a quick buck. We know that’ll happen because it’s what happened after the subprime mortgage crisis.”

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And until cities like San Francisco can recover from the pandemic — a crisis that has laid bare systemic inequities in the economy, housing, and healthcare — rezoning isn’t a priority, says Vanessa Carter, a data analyst at the USC Equity Research Institute. “The major concern right now, particularly through the pandemic, is just keeping people in their homes,” she tells The Frisc. “Single-family zoning is not the thing organizers are triaging.”

At the nonprofit San Francisco Foundation, which focuses on housing and economic equity, senior director Khanh Russo supports zoning reform but says it must go hand-in-hand with economic reforms. If poor and working people can’t own homes, basic housing inequity will remain. “Generational wealth is passed through property,” Russo tells The Frisc. “When communities are excluded” from homeownership, “it impacts their ability to build wealth.”

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