As millions of renters stare down the end of California’s eviction moratorium — and stories of the thousands of evictions that have taken place despite the moratorium are learned — we can clearly see the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on Californians. It has crystallized just how many Californians decide whether they can pay rent or buy groceries, despite living in the wealthiest state in the country.
It would be simplistic, however, to assume the pandemic pushed these families to this point. COVID-19 didn’t create the state’s stark wealth inequality or housing affordability crisis. It just illuminated them.
California’s wealth gap has been growing for the last 20 years, especially between Californians of color and white households. In Los Angeles, Black and Latino households have one cent for every dollar of wealth held by the average white household. The same holds true in San Francisco and in cities across the state.
For California Community Builders, and many Americans, homeownership is the primary way to foster financial security, build wealth and create upward mobility. Homeownership rates are already lower in California than the national average: More than 60% of whites own their homes, while only 35% of Blacks and just over 40% of Latinos are homeowners. In this trend, exclusionary zoning — laws that have the effect of excluding low-income residents and people of color, such as minimum lot sizes and prohibitions of multifamily housing — plays a starring role.
The consequences of exclusionary zoning are multifaceted. As long as multifamily homes are illegal on more than two-thirds of the residential land in California, we will never be able to build enough housing to meet the needs of our state, let alone reduce housing prices. Zoning regulations that only permit single-family homes force builders to prioritize larger homes that are by design more expensive, effectively reserving homeownership for wealthier, and primarily white, Californians who have more generational wealth and opportunity .
Even incremental changes to these laws, like simply allowing duplexes where currently one house stands, often are met with extreme opposition from vocal neighbors who benefit from exclusion. But duplexes and smaller homes tend to be a more affordable choice for first-time home buyers, mid- to lower-income families and people of color — and limiting the development of these homes is also limiting the ability of these potential buyers to become homeowners, as well as their hopes of ever building wealth.
This year, the California Legislature has the chance to pass two bills that would make it easier for low- and middle-income Californians to afford housing. Senate Bill 9 would make it legal to build smaller, naturally more affordable second units and create access to more opportunities for homeownership, while protecting existing tenants from displacement. Senate Bill 10 would establish a streamlined path for local governments to rezone neighborhoods for up to 10 units — if they choose to do so — drastically improving the ability to build new homes. Together, these bills would add hundreds of thousands of smaller, more affordable homes to the state’s housing supply, making homeownership possible for more Black and Latino Californians.
The pandemic’s economic and social toll will be felt by millions of families for years to come. But while it has raised the curtain on California’s wealth inequality, it also has given us the opportunity to reckon with it.
Exclusionary zoning needs to end, because without systemic change in how we treat housing development in our state, families of color will continue to be barred from the wealth-building opportunities that have benefited so many other families through generations of homeownership.
Adam Briones and Robert Apodaca | Contributed
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