The vast majority of land set aside for residential use on the coast is constrained by single-family zoning, attracting wealthy homeowners looking for large properties and small-town charm.

For low-income families, life on the coast looks different.

“The scenario that happens most commonly is that one family will sublease from another family,” said Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, a human services agency that provides support to working families seeking residency on the Coastside. “Sometimes you will have three families living in one, three-room trailer with one family in each room,” she said.

As efforts to increase opportunity housing spur on going debate, a report from the University of California, Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute suggests that single-family zoning contributes to racial segregation in the Bay Area.

Single Family Housing map

The area shaded in pink is that covered by single-family zoning restrictions in Half Moon Bay. The blue area is all that is left for other types of residential housing. Map courtesy Othering and Belonging Institute

The study's comprehensive analysis of zoning ordinances reveals that single-family zoning regulates development across more than 80 percent of Half Moon Bay’s residential land and over 90 percent of housing stock in Pacifica. Pacifica ranks among the top cities in need of reform in the Bay Area, according to the study’s authors.

"We're not talking about single-family homes," said Samir Gambhir, co-author of the publication. "We're talking about single-family zoning, and there's a difference."

Zoning is a common way to control land use in America. It determines how big a building can be, whether it is commercial or residential, if it's a single-family home or a high-rise. Single-family zoning prevents a community from building any type of housing except a detached single-family home in a given area.

“It's systemic,” said Gambhir. “And it ensures that housing stays expensive.”

The supply of housing in a given area is severely constrained when only one household can occupy a parcel of land, causing inflation in the housing market. Middle- and low-income families are kept out of neighborhoods where single-family homes are more expensive, while costs remain lower in denser communities.

Gambhir and his co-authors report that single-family zoning excludes residents of color who experience a persistent gap in earnings, making it much more difficult for them to compete for housing. The result is increased racial and economic segregation.

The study was released amid the state Senate’s discussion of various bills that would make it easier to build denser housing. SB 9 and 10 are currently awaiting the approval of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

SB 9 would allow property owners to subdivide their single-family lots to construct two duplexes or two houses with attached units. Cities and counties could approve up to 10-unit buildings on single-family lots under SB 10.

An analysis of SB 9 by the Terner Center estimates that it could help create 700,000 more units in the state's existing neighborhoods.

Guerrero echoed ongoing concerns that expanding multifamily zoning does not ensure that new units will be affordable. Instead, vulnerable homeowners and tenants may be displaced as developers purchase properties in hopes of building denser housing to turn a profit.

“I don’t think there is an easy answer,” said Guerrero. “You can expand housing but you have to make sure it’s affordable. But people need to make money, so I’m not sure that would be the case.”

However, experts believe that successfully expanding opportunity housing would do more than just create more affordable places to live.

“It's not just to address the housing crisis; it's to ensure that people of varying income levels can build their wealth through homeownership,” said Ilaf Esuf, housing and economic policy analyst for United Way Bay Area. "It would become more affordable for families of color who are paid differently than white families and who have been historically left out of housing opportunities.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, housing has only gotten more expensive along the Coastside. According to data from the California Association of Realtors, Half Moon Bay home prices were up 24.3 percent compared to last year, selling for a median price of $1.88 million, while Pacifica home prices were up 17 percent compared to last year, selling for a median price of $1.47 million.

Many benefits traditionally accompany single-family neighborhoods: access to better schools, higher property values and higher incomes. Researchers attest that expanded opportunity housing in these neighborhoods would distribute these benefits more widely and equitably.

“People argue to keep single-family zoning to maintain neighborhood character,” said Gambhir. “This argument is used to hoard resources and ensure that they are used up within the community and not shared with people who are outside the current community.”

Results of the study indicate that access to these resources can have a long-term effect and lead to better life outcomes. Children who were raised in single-family zoned neighborhoods benefited from increased educational achievement, higher incomes and lower rates of poverty and incarceration in adulthood.

“We have to ensure that what we do for ourselves also impacts others. It's not a zero-sum game," said Gambhir. “It's not that, if you open up your doors to people from low-income communities, you're going to lose stuff. Sharing the resources can benefit everyone.”

(6) comments

Sabrina Brennan

The Coastside does not need additional market rate housing. We don't have the infrastructure to support it. Only 100% affordable housing projects should be considered and the state and county should fund it.


The best aspect of this article is that it might engender a serious dialog about Housing. But the article is seriously flawed. It does speak to the hopes of the real estate interests, and people who can't afford to live here. But there are several realities regarding causality and sustainability that it misses:

1. we don't have enough water for the people who are here (see recent urban water management plans).

2. the sewer system is close to overburdened (sometimes it is, already) and needs to be relocated because... Climate Crisis

3. Zoning is a social and elective process. It exists because we want it.

4. There are 8 billion people in the world. They can't all live here.

5. People prefer less density to more; they want growth in Quality of Live, not Quantity.

6. We already have Paradise-like wildfire conditions and more WUI housing increases danger and intensifies other problems (e.g. evacuation)

7. Housing is an Outcome of the entire Social and Economic system, and that's where change needs to start.

But this article deserves a more thorough reply, and it will get one...

Steve Hyman

I thought both this article and Clay’s editorial were both simplistic and overlooked the realities and attitudes of community leaders and public at large.

We have imposed strict growth limits here restricting the supply of new homes. Additionally, the community at large, or as I like to say, the loud minority, fight aggressively every large project causing years of delays and tons of money wasted on numerous studies. Pacific Ridge probably gets the award for most strung out project with around 30 years of delaying tactics. The result is new homes that may have cost around $400-$500k in the 90’s now go for $2 million. If you want to build a small home, better plan on spending around $1 million because of high land costs, which have not appreciated like home prices, and expensive water, sewer and permit fees. It’s a long process too so you’ll need a place to live while you spend around 2 years waiting to move in. It also requires a huge amount of cash to buy land and pay for plans and permits before financing is available. That knocks out most people.

The reason San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are so expensive is because of the huge success Silicon Valley and the bio-tech industries and the high paying jobs they’ve created. This has put upward pressure on both sales and rents.

Don’t paint the homeowners as villains. They are the ones who have made a long term commitment to their communities and pay not only property taxes but also the school and sewer bonds to improve the lives of people living here. Renters may pay them indirectly but it’s unclear if the rent covers all the landlords operating costs.

Real estate like all investments go up and down. I remember the last two recessions in the mid 90’s and early 2000’s as very painful with many foreclosures. During those periods I saw many people with negative equity in their homes. Some walked away and others rode out the storms. Loose lending requirements was a major contributor to the problem.

Now banks are much stricter about who they lend to. One of the results of that is the number of home sales, not prices, have never recovered from the last peak in 2004 for both the County and the Coast. Volume today is still down for both by 30%.

Rents are a function of supply and demand and the high incomes here put upward pressure on rents. But life hasn’t always been great for landlords as rents have no relation to the owners carrying costs. For most of my time in real estate, landlords operated either on a small profit or negative cash flow. Of course it depends on either how long you’ve owned something or how much of a down payment was made.

This article reminds me of a cliche pertaining to weather. Everybody talks about it but can’t do anything about it. And in this case, I would venture to say most property owners here think this is another poorly thought out idea .

Charlie V

What an excellent and thorough article! It is extremely rare to see a piece in the media with this level of depth and nuance.

I've been very concerned about this for the past six years. After a life change, I had to go searching for an apartment, and was shocked at the extreme shortage. I was fortunate enough to have plenty of money and income, unlike the last time I was looking a decade earlier, but despite that it was unbelievably challenging. Nobody would even take applications, as any opening would overwhelm landlords.

And the housing that was available was so expensive and inadequate. It's really shocking what we put up with here in California.

People that have owned their home for a decade have no clue what it is like out there, or where exactly their ever increasing home values come from. Every year you make 5% gain on your home, which you bought with 5x leverage, making it the equivalent of a 25% gain on investment, you are directly pricing out the people who do the work to make tour lives possible, immoserstinf families that struggle to get by. Your massive home gains cause rents to go up, causing continuous new waves of people to enter homelessness.

Increasing home prices come at a cost to others, and every person that works to maintain exclusionary zoning or stop more housing near to them or far to them is culpable.

News stories like this are leaking out from academic research. And when the history of our era is written, homeowners that support exclusionary zoning will be some of the prime villains that support the systemic racism and class exploitation of our era. It's not just the billionaires that cause our problems, it's also the mere millionaires.

Steve Hyman

Why is everything about race? The reason people can’t buy homes in certain neighborhoods is because they don’t make enough money. I originally wanted to live in Woodside but guess what, I didn’t make enough money. So I settled in HMB.

Some of the points raised in the article overlook that there are serious constraints to building here so all this and the editorial by Clay are just feel good talking points with little basis of becoming reality.

Sure we can build some adu’s but they really only work on larger parcels than the 5000sqft lots that dominate the Coast. To me these seem both physically and financially unattractive because the cost of construction and permits and time make the payback too long and the adu overpowers the typical lot.

We have strict growth limits that restrict how many homes can be built in any year. Also the cost to build is prohibitive pushing $500,000 for land, plans, water, sewer and permits, most has to be paid for with cash, before building the home.

HMB is not an island. We are part of one of the wealthiest counties in the US where average home price for the county is north of $2.4 million and the Coast is 15th out of 27 towns. Atherton is frequently mentioned as most expensive town in America.

And finally let’s not forget that this area is highly anti growth and is basically against every project with lawsuits being the main delaying strategy stretching out some projects for decades.

Let’s see how many years it takes from start to finish to build out the Mid Penn Moss Beach project that the community doesn’t want

Scott McVicker

Zoning is not the problem. Zoning is a consumer choice. As the article notes, this choice increased in popularity over the past year…by 24.3%. When offered the choice, consumers are willing to pay a premium to be able to live in the type of neighborhood which is restricted to single family houses.

If asked, would a single, low-income family like to live in a house in such a neighborhood? Yes…judging by the tone of the article. So why don’t they / can’t they? Income. Income to afford the down payment. Income to afford the monthly payment…plus taxes…plus insurance, etc. etc. They reality is that not everyone makes the income necessary to live in such a neighborhood. Different professions and skill levels pay differently. That is an economic reality.

From this juncture we can either see income inequality as an objective reality of living among families of varied skill levels…or we can attempt to assign a “cause” for this particular outcome. In the former, we seek ways of making housing more affordable…by reducing the cost to build individual homes…and yes, by increasing density…so that those earning a lower income can participate in home ownership. If you recall the recent Local Coastal Plan update, one of the thrusts was to encourage increased density in selected areas. This is how the ball starts rolling. This is actual progress. On the other hand, if you are trapped by the social justice mindset of assigning causes to outcomes you do not fully understand, then nothing happens…aside for some useless self-pleasuring. You’ve done your virtue signaling. You may retire to your self-satisfied rest for the remainder of the day.

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