Money From Trees Don’t Fall: Zoning, Race, Class, and Community Self-Determination

“Corporations aren’t interested in the messy ebb and flow of humanity. They want stability and predictable rates of return. And although racial discrimination is no longer a stated policy for real estate brokers and developers, racial and social homogeneity are still firmly embedded in America’s collective idea of stability; that’s what our new landlords are thinking even if they are not saying it.”  – Tanner Colby

Any conversation about zoning regulation must take into account who the winners and losers have been historically as well as who is best-poised to take advantage now. As in all other aspects of housing, the political influence of entrenched and privileged interests has played a huge role in zoning decisions, but who is entrenched doesn’t necessarily overlap with who is privileged. Communities marginalized by past zoning discrimination are incredibly skeptical of zoning changes today, (justifiably) fearing the effects of increased development on gentrification and displacement. Those interests often literally map onto the lines of race and class that helped shape SF into what it is now and what it is becoming, but the picture is decidedly more complicated than a simple tale of affluent NIMBYism. Let’s dig in.

An extremely short history of zoning discrimination:

Founded as part of the New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) carved American cities up into zoning classes that deliberately depressed the property values of homes and refused to insure “redlined” neighborhoods full of “undesirables” (read: people of color). The state thus gave mortgage lenders the ability to discriminate against current and aspiring minority homeowners, particularly African Americans, who could only secure intentionally devalued housing in segregated communities. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal “The Case for Reparations” includes a truly infuriating 101 on the horrors of redlining:

“Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”

Fast forward to today where not much seems to have changed—affluent SF communities are still trying to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods, race-based predatory lending is amazingly still a thing, and increasing housing segregation has generated cascading structural effects on education and social mobility, which in turn has fed—you guessed it—more housing segregation.

How did SF look under redlining? Like this:


Working-class enclaves like the Western Addition, the Fillmore, the Mission, Bernal Heights, Japantown, Visitacion Valley and Bayview-Hunters Point were specifically zoned as “undesirable,” more emphatically so if the working-class people in question were people of color. It’s no coincidence that some of the most concerted community resistance to gentrification and luxury development today comes from those neighborhoods; once considered the “wrong side of town”, their relatively high density has now made them hotbeds for quick and easy development.

In case you were wondering: Why was now-affluent Nob/Russian Hill also redlined? Turns out its “undesirability” stemmed from its proximity to Chinatown and its then-mostly Italian population, back when xenophobia toward white immigrants from eastern and southern Europe was still very much a thing.

How is SF zoned now?

Here’s a beautiful map from the CCA Urban Works Agency. The light gray areas are RH-1 (single-family) zoned. See any patterns?


Unsurprisingly, Seacliff, Pacific Heights, Forest Hill, West Portal, and parts of the Outer Sunset originally labelled “first or second grade” in the days of redlining tend to be single-family zoned today. In the Sunset specifically, you can see exactly how the relatively “undesirable” sections bordering Golden Gate Park are zoned more densely than the rest of the area. (The Sunset was also a landing place for “white flight” from the Mission and eastern neighborhoods in the mid-20th century.)

However, you’ll also note that redlined districts to the southeast, like Hunters Point, the Excelsior, and Visitacion Valley, are also low-zoned today. These are frontiers of development in a city that once marginalized these neighborhoods and is now desperately seeking new spaces to up-zone and build.

It’s critical that we not conflate all of today’s “downzoning” with yesterday’s discriminatory zoning. Consider the crucial aspect of the housing market that has reversed from the heyday of redlining to the present, not just in the Bay Area but nationwide: Cities are now seen as desirable by the affluent and privileged. That is very much part of the reason that San Francisco is currently dealing with Silicon Valley-style diversity problems, problems that cut to the heart of debates over the extent to which supply-side approaches can actually mitigate displacement, especially along lines of race or class.

Why can’t we just remove restrictions on supply then?

Upzoning on a broad scale can drive down land prices for development, especially near transit-rich areas. But when land is up-zoned to incentivize housing supply that will lower rents long-term if implemented on a massive regional scale, who in the community stands to be displaced from their formerly “undesirable” neighborhoods in the meantime? The upzoning of Williamsburg, Long Island City, and downtown Brooklyn by the Bloomberg administration in the mid-2000s was a cautionary tale of the downsides of excessive up-zoning for luxury developments. The expectation was that upzoning would bring down land prices by increasing supply; instead, speculative investment drove those prices up to the point where even luxury units were considered economically infeasible.

In the meantime, non-luxury renters in those areas couldn’t absorb the shock of a sudden community-wide rent spike; given no options to remain in the area, leave they did, to the detriment of the Hasidic Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Dominican enclaves that had long called Williamsburg home. As Mayor Bloomberg’s city planning czar, Amanda Burden, admitted of her own policies shortly before leaving office:

What we haven’t figured out is the question of gentrification. I have never, since I had this job, come up with a satisfactory answer of how to make sure everyone benefits…I had believed that if we kept building in that manner and increasing our housing supply … that prices would go down. We had every year almost 30,000 permits for housing, and we built a tremendous amount of housing, including affordable housing, either through incentives or through government funds. And the price of housing didn’t go down at all.

In an excellent new study of San Francisco, The Berkeley Urban Displacement Project found that rezoning initiatives to encourage taller private developments and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) do contribute to overall affordability, but over generational timescales. They also found that subsidized affordable housing and nonprofit affordable housing development had more immediate and stronger long-term effects on mitigating displacement. This is why it’s so important to devise strategies (like inclusionary requirements) through which upzoning can generate additional affordable housing units.

One of the Berkeley team’s key insights is that the effects of new housing can offset displacement in an overall region but still generate severe displacement in localized areas, which is where neighborhood input factors in the most. Many SF communities that faced racism and discrimination in housing in the past now face displacement in the current market, even in neighborhoods that are more densely zoned. Over time, those communities have developed a strong organizational capacity to defend their interests.

Getting stakeholders in these communities to agree to new housing construction requires thoughtful negotiation and discussion about short-term vs. long-term affordability, financial concessions that developers can offer the community to compensate for displacement, and analysis of how the development may contribute to displacement, especially as new market-rate development may potentially funnel demand into a specific neighborhood. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan up-zoned SoMa after discussions between developers, politicos, and the Filipino community to fund compensatory community resources. The tense back-and-forth between development behemoth Lennar, the city, and Hunters Point community leaders shows that while this process can be messy, it is a critical first step in the process of damage control.

As tempting as it may seem to fast-track development by centralizing local controls up to the state level in order to do an end-run around affluent NIMBYism, these policies open up the serious risk of delegating control away from communities that fought tooth and nail to protect their interests and develop a political voice in the face of systemic discrimination. Tone-deaf approaches to gentrification and community resistance are how you end up with luxury condo ads declaring the Bayview “The Next Mission.”

In other words, who says “in my backyard” matters. A sensible and historically well-informed approach to housing must differentiate between longtime residents of historically disadvantaged neighborhoods staring down the barrel of displacement and historically privileged communities trying to avoid low-income and affordable housing development in their neighborhood. Simply shoving both under the umbrella of “anti-housing” activists won’t speak to the concerns of residents seeing their homes and communities turn into desirable profit opportunities that remain inaccessible to them.

*The title of this post refers to A Tribe Called Quest’s excellent ode to gentrification skepticism, “The Space Program”.


One thought on “Money From Trees Don’t Fall: Zoning, Race, Class, and Community Self-Determination

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  1. Perhaps if space had been made for self determination of existing residents in at-risk communities, then we might have seen better outcomes in San Francisco. But the nonprofit housing agencies that speak for and over the voices of residents of at-risk communities are having none of that. These paid staffers who commute into our communities to speak for folks quite capable of speaking for themselves fear anyone but those beholden to the specific goals of their agency. They fear the wealthy and corporate interests as most of us do. They fear non-poor residents because they believe that demographics determines politics and have prejudicially dismissed anyone who makes more money then they as rich. And they fear their own purported constituencies who cannot be trusted to support the goals of their employing agencies.


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