Many Valley communities struggle to accommodate their fair share of housing during California’s record housing crisis. The housing shortage has driven home prices and rents to unprecedented levels throughout the state. Coupled with an ever-increasing population, the housing shortage is at the forefront of issues facing California communities, especially those in the San Joaquin Valley. Despite the multitude of California laws aimed at increasing housing supply and affordability, the crisis has prompted many communities to look for other, more innovative solutions. Through their zoning codes, specific/master plans, and general plans, local governments have a unique opportunity to revisit existing development policies and regulations and explore new policies and regulations that could lead to increased housing supply or decreased housing costs in their community.
Several zoning code revision approaches are identified and explored in this section, presenting opportunities and challenges. It is important to recognize that a combination of approaches will likely be necessary to achieve desired results. Time permitting, it is always a best practice to “plug holes or deficiencies” in local zoning codes relating to constraints on housing production and bring codes into compliance with State laws and the general plan (e.g., consistent zones and densities, by-right requirements, density bonus) prior to submitting housing elements for HCD review. If deficiencies or needed updates are identified but have not been completed prior to housing element submittal, the housing element should contain a program and an early timeline for action to address the needed changes. While there are endless general plan and zoning code revision possibilities, this section describes three examples of innovative zoning strategies that facilitate increased housing production:
- Eliminate single-family zoning
- Eliminate or increase maximum residential density standards
- Modify parking requirements
Eliminate Single-Family Zoning
Traditional single-family zoning originated with Euclidian zoning. The basic idea of this zoning approach was to separate residential uses from commercial and industrial uses that were seen as incompatible. Over the last 100 years, single-family zoning has become the dominate zoning type in most California cities and counties. Typical to these zones are large minimum lot sizes, large setbacks, two-three story height limits, and allowed uses limited to single-family homes and uses that support them. While this development type is extremely popular, it also represents an inefficient use of land, leading to high housing costs, expensive infrastructure, and increased traffic and air pollution. More recently, such zoning is increasingly viewed as economically and socially exclusionary.
In response to the many issues raised by single-family zoning, particularly the housing supply and cost, an increasing number of states and cities are opting to eliminate or substantially alter single-family zoning. Common to most of these efforts is eliminating single-family dwellings as the only permitted residential use, in favor of allowing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes on the same sized parcel. The obvious effect of this relatively simple change is to allow an increased number of housing units in a given area and the likelihood that each of those units would be smaller, and more affordable, than the single-family unit that might have otherwise been built. Most of the modified single-family zones are retaining the same or similar development standards to ensure compatibility with the existing, built environment. Here are some examples of places that are eliminating single-family zoning:
Oregon. The State of Oregon eliminated exclusive single-family zoning in 2019. Under House Bill 2001, cities with more than 25,000 people must allow up to fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods. Cities between 10,000 and 25,000 must allow at least duplexes. Cities in the Portland metropolitan area with more than 1,000 must also allow up to fourplexes in single-family residential areas. The changes expected from this legislation are likely to be gradual.
Minneapolis. In 2019, the City of Minneapolis became the first major municipality to eliminate exclusive single-family zoning in the United States. The City’s policy “does not prohibit construction of single-family homes…it simply says that no neighborhoods in the city can have one single-family homes.” The City’s progressive policy was praised and approved of by zoning experts and academics, which made Minneapolis an influential and exemplary case study for addressing housing crises.
Sacramento. Like Minneapolis before it, the City of Sacramento is attempting to eliminate exclusive single-family residential zoning. Despite some backlash from neighborhood groups, the City Council voted unanimously to end exclusive single-family residential zones in Sacramento. The changes will be reflected in the City’s 2040 General Plan.
Eliminate or Modify Maximum Residential Density Standards
California law requires that general plan land use elements include population density and building intensity standards (see Twain Harte Homeowners Association v. County of Tuolumne ). Most general plans determine population density using two factors: dwelling units per acre and persons per dwelling unit. Establishing density ranges for residential land uses has become standard general plan practice.
Building intensity is essentially the amount of building square footage allowed (or assumed) per given area, typically per acre. The common measure used in general plans for determining allowable building intensity is floor area ratio or FAR. FAR refers to the ratio of building floor space compared to the square footage of the site. FAR is calculated by dividing the floor area of all buildings on the site by the total square footage of the site. For example, a 12,500 square foot building on a 25,000 square foot site has a FAR of 0.5. FAR is typically used to determine maximum allowable development for non-residential land uses. Implementing zoning regulations are, by law, required to be consistent with the general plan. As a result, zoning code development standards, particularly those related to minimum/maximum parcel size, lot coverage, and building height, are directly linked to the general plan residential density or FAR standards. Typically, low-density residential land use designations include lower-density maximums, based on the assumption that these areas will be primarily (or exclusively) single-family homes. Implementing zoning development standards are then constrained by these lower-density assumptions, resulting in larger minimum parcel sizes, lot coverage and building height restrictions, and limitations to single-family dwellings.
Traditional Euclidian zoning codes typically include development standards that regulate height, bulk, and space of structures by zoning district. These development standards address front, side and rear setbacks, lot coverage, height, and parcel size. For residential uses, these standards have the effect of regulating maximum density, or the total number of dwelling units that can be built in a given area. Typically, most general plans establish the minimum and maximum allowable density in each residential land use category. Implementing zoning regulations are required to be consistent with the general plan, so the combined development standards for each residential zoning district should be consistent with the corresponding land use category.
Many cities and counties are modifying residential development standards by increasing allowable density to allow for more efficient and intense use of residential land. Such modifications include reduced setbacks, increased height and lot coverage, and smaller minimum parcel size. Such changes do not affect existing single-family neighborhoods, as does the elimination of single-family zoning, but are focused on enabling new or redeveloping neighborhoods to include a broader range of housing types, densities, and affordability.
There are two other emerging approaches to addressing limitations typical residential density standards impose on housing supply and affordability: increase density maximums to allow for a broader range of housing types in traditional low-density-designated areas or eliminate density standards altogether in favor of FAR as the density/intensity standard.
Establish Minimum Residential Zoning Density. Most general plans establish a minimum and maximum allowable density in each residential land use category. Some cities establish the midpoint of a density range as the minimum density unless environmental, historic, or other unique constraints are present. Additionally, jurisdictions must ensure that their zoning allows for the maximum density of the general plan density range since zoning regulations must be consistent with the general plan.
The establishment of minimum density requirements within zoning districts is a method to ensure that development makes the best use of available land. Development at lower densities can result in land use patterns that are difficult or more costly to serve with infrastructure and utilities, reducing affordability. Minimum density requirements can also be useful to ensure that developments do not build too many overly large or expensive units. Untapped development potential may be lost as it can be difficult for these areas to redevelop when there is more demand for housing, forcing development to sprawl. Enacting a minimum density ordinance can help ensure that housing is built at sufficient densities to support transit or provide a variety of housing choices.
Additionally, minimum densities help guarantee that sites develop according to the minimum densities required to accommodate lower-income household requirements for housing elements. For cities in the San Joaquin Valley, minimum residential density is currently 30 units/acre for cities with populations over 100,000, and 20 units/acre for cities or county areas with populations less than 100,000. This is important because jurisdictions are now required to annually report on housing production and if, because of housing approvals, site inventories are found insufficient to meet remaining housing allocations, jurisdictions must initiate additional zoning actions to maintain an adequate inventory.
Modify Parking Standards
Through the zoning codes, local governments establish off-street parking standards for residential development. The standards can be determined on a per-dwelling-unit basis, on the number of bedrooms per dwelling unit, or a combination of the two. Off-street residential parking standards are established to ensure that residential uses have adequate on-site parking, so the residents don’t need to park on public streets. At the same time, on-site parking requirements reduce the amount of land that can be devoted to housing and must be factored into the cost of each dwelling unit. In particular, the per-unit cost of multi-family residential development can be significantly influenced by the amount of land and costs devoted to parking. However, many current parking standards are decades old and do not account for more recent changes in vehicle ownership and driving habits that result in reduced parking demand. Ride sharing, car share apps, access to public transit, and decreasing vehicle ownership in younger generations all contribute to reduced parking demand.
Recent State legislation has also restricted a local jurisdiction’s ability to require parking in certain instances (e.g., near transit, car share, etc.) or has capped the amount of parking that a jurisdiction may require (e.g., SB 9 and transit proximate areas). In other instances, State laws have allowed for the outright elimination of parking by allowing garages to be converted into an ADU without replacement parking.
In light of the housing cost implications, changing driving habits, and new State laws, many communities seeking to decrease housing costs are revisiting their zoning codes to determine whether current parking requirements are still appropriate. In doing so, those communities may reduce housing costs for residents, potentially lower development costs, and free up land for additional dwelling units. The following are examples of strategies communities are taking to create greater flexibility in parking requirements and increase the land allocated to residential development.
Reduced Parking Requirements. A simple, obvious approach some communities have taken is to simply reduce the minimum parking standards, either on a communitywide basis or in specific circumstances. Since driving and auto-ownership characteristics vary widely among different communities, this approach requires some research into the area-specific parking needs. More dense urban areas served by mass transit are more likely to experience higher transit use and lower auto dependence. Most San Joaquin Valley communities have limited or no public transit to auto ownership, and dependence is higher, leading to greater parking demand. Specific instances where lower parking standards work well are age-restricted residential uses with high senior populations or affordable housing projects where residents are less able to afford the cost of vehicle ownership.
Maximums Instead of Minimums. Most communities specify their parking requirements in terms of a minimum number of required spaces. One of the biggest concerns with minimum parking requirements is they have the potential to cause an excessive amount of land to be devoted to parking by applying a “one size fits all” solution. Parking minimums fail to consider the many nuances of a residential development, such as vehicle ownership rates and transit use. That is, parking minimums assume that every adult occupant owns at least one vehicle, which is increasingly not the case.
To address this issue, some communities have not only eliminated minimum parking standards but have instead adopted parking maximums. Rather than specifying a minimum number of spaces that must be provided, a maximum limit is placed on the number of parking spaces that may be developed as a part of a residential project. Replacing parking minimums with maximums can help avoid parking oversupply, reduce land costs, or enable a greater portion of a parcel to be devoted to residential uses.
Unbundling Parking. “Unbundling” parking is the practice of selling or leasing parking spaces separate from the purchase or lease of a residential use. This allows base housing costs to be lowered and individuals who do not need parking the flexibility of paying less for their dwelling unit. It also incentivizes individuals – where they have the option to walk, bike, or use public transit for daily activities – to forego parking space ownership. While most zoning codes include procedures for making specific findings to reduce residential parking requirements, zoning codes could also include provisions to allow for or incentivize unbundled parking for residential projects.
Shared Parking. Shared parking can reduce costs associated with development and maintenance of parking. Shared parking works particularly well in mixed-use developments where uses have differing peak parking demand periods. For example, housing and offices are complementary uses wherein residents leave for work and free up spaces for office users during the day. Shared-parking arrangements can also be used among different property owners by employing shared-parking agreements. When shared-parking agreements are developed, ensure that the jurisdiction is a party to the agreement if replacement parking solutions are required.
Reduce Covered Parking Requirements and/or Allow Tandem Parking. Many jurisdictions have covered parking requirements (e.g., two covered spaces per unit). Covered parking could be reduced or eliminated in some instances to reduce overall costs of development. Reduced covered parking and or tandem parking can also make it easier to accommodate small-lot single-family homes and townhomes.
Challenges. Reduced parking standards, in general, can be a difficult topic to address. The lack of parking in some areas sometimes creates impacts on other areas (e.g., spillover parking, blocked driveways). As such, jurisdictions should evaluate parking requirements carefully to see where and when parking requirements can be reduced. Considerations include:
- Do individual garages in single-family neighborhoods get used for parking or storage, or are they converted to an accessory unit? Could less covered parking be required? Could tandem parking be allowed? Is covered parking essential?
- Are parking standards for multi-family developments tied to unit sizes or just a number per unit? Smaller units like studios and one-bedroom units may not need more than one space while 2+ bedroom units may need more. Are parking spaces assigned? If so, many spaces will go unused or will be underused. Shared open parking and unbundled parking can significantly reduce overall parking needs.
- Are transit or other transportation options (e.g., car share, shuttles) available that could allow for reduced parking requirements?
- Is plentiful on-street parking available that could allow for reduced parking requirements?
- Are parking standards tailored to distinct types of housing, (e.g., senior housing, affordable housing) that may have lower than average parking demand?
- Are shared parking facilities possible (e.g., mixed-use developments)?
- Are car share/rental spaces an option? Encourage their provision by allowing a reduction in required parking spaces for every car share space provided.
While a comprehensive overhaul of parking requirements is desirable, to test which solutions work best, jurisdictions can also adopt some of the less controversial options or adopt ordinances that allow variations in parking standards within new developments with limited ability for spillover effects.
While stakeholders and MPO Directors did not focus on innovative zoning solutions, several relevant points were made during the interviews:
- Encourage Innovation and Flexibility. An entrepreneurial mindset is needed to try new innovations and pivot from what isn’t working. Flexibility is key.
- Update Development Regulations. Updates to development and zoning codes are critical. Even if funding is available and policies are in place, development and zoning codes can discourage the very types of development needed. Some product types should be “by-right.”
- Lack of Housing Type Diversity: Some Directors noted that the Valley housing inventory is dominated by single-family homes and that a greater diversity in housing types is needed.
- Flexible Zoning: The Kern MPO Director shared that flexible zoning has facilitated the development of market rate housing in downtown Bakersfield.
When asked about the effectiveness of planning tools to facilitate housing, 85 percent of the respondents rated zoning as moderately to extremely effective. In response to a question about whether specific housing types were allowed by-right in residential zones, only 15-20 percent of respondents indicated that duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and cottage courts are allowed by-right in all residential zones. When asked whether zoning represented a housing impediment in their city or county, there was no consensus. Only 30 percent rated zoning as moderately important, 48 percent neutral to not important, and only 22 percent very or extremely important.
Relevant State Laws
A growing trend in recent State legislation is to limit a local jurisdiction’s ability to require parking (e.g., for ADUs, junior ADUs, transit-oriented areas (AB 710), for housing on religious sites (AB 1851), and most recently for Urban Lot Splits (SB 9).
Government Code Section 65852.2. Accessory Dwelling Units.
Assembly Bill No. 710 (AB 710) (2011). Infill and transit-oriented development (parking limits).
Assembly Bill No. 1851 (AB 1851) (2020) Religious institution affiliated housing development projects: parking requirements.
Senate Bill No. 9 (SB 9) (2021). Housing Development: Approvals.
California Legislative Information, Legislation Text, SB 9 Housing Development: Approvals and SB 10 Planning and Zoning: Housing Development: Density.
ABC 10, News Article, Howland, Lena, (July 12, 2021), ‘Two bills in the California Senate are making housing advocates upset’.
Davisite, Letter, Walsh, Colin (June 13, 2021): Proposal to Eliminate R-1 Single Family Zoning is a Terrible Idea
Reason, News Article, Britschgi, Christian, (July 1, 2019), Oregon Becomes First State to Ditch Single-Family Zoning
OPD, News Article, Mapes, Jeff (July 3, 2019), Oregon Strikes Exclusive Single-Family Zoning, But Effects May Take Years.
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Academic Column: Rezoning History: Influential Minneapolis Policy Shift Links Affordability, Equity
The Century Foundation, Kahlenberg, Richard, How Minneapolis Ended Single-Family Zoning.
Politico Magazine Article, Trickey, Erick, How Minneapolis Freed Itself From the Stranglehold of Single-Family Homes.
LA Times News Article, Dillon, Liam, In a first for California, Sacramento poised to allow apartments in single-family home neighborhoods.
Planetizen News Article, Brasuell, James (February 11, 2021) Context for Sacramento’s Decision to End Single-Family Zoning.
Local Housing Solutions, Reducing Parking Requirements (August 2021).
Skyline Parking, Minimum parking requirements – problems and alternatives (August 2021).
CityLab. Parking Reform Will Save Your City.
Donald Shoup. Parking Links.
ULI. Shared Parking.
Elimination of Single-Family Zoning
State of Oregon. The State of Oregon eliminated single-family zoning through House Bill 2001 in 2019. The bill is an example of inclusionary zoning and allows for more affordable housing to be built. The bill allows duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and cottage clusters to be constructed on land zoned for single-family homes in cities with over 25,000 residents. In cities with over 10,000 residents, duplexes will be allowed on land zoned for single family homes.
Fairfax County, Virginia. In 2016, Fairfax County, Virginia, rezoned key areas around transit stations and certain commercial corridors to allow for higher-density residential development. The upzoning effort increased the allowable floor area ratio (FAR) for new buildings in designated areas from 2.0 or 3.0 to 5.0.
City of Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles adopted a small lot subdivision ordinance to promote the development of high-density residential development. Primarily, the ordinance reduces minimum lot size and side yard requirements to allow for creative townhome developments. The ordinance applies only to multi-family and commercial zones. The ordinance does not apply to single-family zones.
Establishing Minimum Required Densities
Minimum Densities. While maximum densities are a key feature, development may occur at intensities much lower than the intent of the zone. Establishing minimum densities can be used by jurisdictions to require more efficient use of available residential-zoned land and to ensure sufficient residential capacity to accommodate growth. Adopting minimum densities can also support other community goals such as maximizing transit investments, expanding housing choices, protecting open space, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
City of Sacramento. Zoning Code Parking Regulations Summary Sheet.