California Housing Policy Proposals Focus on Single-Family Homes in Push for Social Equity, Officials Say

March 13, 2021 Updated: March 15, 2021

Proposed state housing policies that seek to brand ownership of single-family homes in Southern California as exclusionary are making it more difficult to solve the region’s housing woes, some local officials say—but supporters are defending the policies as necessary to correct historical biases in the market.

The officials, who are regional council members of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), say the agency is focusing too much on social justice and equity measures while addressing local housing needs. SCAG is responsible for implementing state affordable housing mandates for 191 cities throughout the region.

Anaheim City Councilman Trevor O’Neil suggested the state is using social inequity as a way to usher in housing projects that aren’t financially feasible or that many local communities simply don’t want.

“This is all part of the assault on single-family zoning that we’ve seen over the last few years,” O’Neil told The Epoch Times. “We always have bills in the legislature that want to erode local control, and force lot splits and multiple units on a lot.”

He cited three presentations at a March 4 SCAG Joint Policy Committee meeting—on housing, transportation, and economic inequality—that he said focused primarily on social equity issues instead of addressing current housing needs.

At the meeting, Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, executive director of the Los Angeles Local Initiatives Support Corp., spoke about the “exclusionary zoning” of single-family home residential neighborhoods. She advocated for more affordable, higher-density housing to create “opportunity zones” for lower-income people in wealthier neighborhoods.

“Exclusionary zoning is really in some ways a silent policy that keeps affordable housing out of neighborhoods that really are those neighborhoods of opportunity. And exclusionary zoning does that through land use and building codes,” Thrash-Ntuk said.

O’Neil said the presentations focused too much on the past rather than dealing with the future.

“The purpose of this meeting, I think, was just to give us a sense that those kinds of policies warrant our support, because of the racial inequities that zoning laws have historically brought, at least in their opinion,” he said.

“My God, those presentations that were given were just nuts,” O’Neil told The Epoch Times. “We learned a new phrase. We know what inclusionary zoning is, but now we have exclusionary zoning—and exclusionary zoning is essentially single-family neighborhoods, and they are exclusive and inherently segregationist and racist.”

Today’s zoning policies that promote single-family home development have kept low-income people out of wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods across the country and disproportionately impacted racial minorities, Thrash-Ntuk said. She cited racial covenants and redlining as examples of racism in zoning and banking that have contributed to inequity in California’s past.

Thrash-Ntuk said efforts are necessary to prevent areas of concentrated poverty, where 40 percent or more of the community falls below the federal poverty rate.

“These are often communities that lack access to quality schools, job opportunities, safe streets, and access to quality health care,” she said.

Also at the meeting, Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, addressed equity issues related to transportation, and William Darity, of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, spoke about economic inequality, racial wealth, and income gaps.

For the average American, a primary residence accounts for about 24 percent of household wealth, while the rest is attributable to nonresidential land ownership, business ownership, retirement accounts, and financial assets, according to Darity.

“Homeownership alone is not the key to understanding the racial wealth gap—it is the full array of assets,” said Darity. “And it’s something that is a consequence of the intergenerational cumulative effects of white supremacy.”

He talked about slaves not getting 40-acre land grants as promised at the end of the Civil War, and advocated for “reparative justice” at the national level.

“I don’t think that the states and localities have the capacity to eliminate the racial wealth gap that they’ve been talking about. … What states and localities can do, using a metaphor from Malcolm X, is they can pull the knife out—but it’s the federal government that has to heal the wound.”

Housing Bills

Following Thrash-Ntuk’s presentation, Rosemead City Councilwoman Margaret Clark discussed her opposition to last year’s failed Senate Bill 50 (SB 50), which sought to decrease local control over zoning in deference to the state, particularly near transit hubs and job centers.

Clark, who has served seven terms as Rosemead mayor, said she grew up in Baldwin Park and shopped in Leimert Park, two Los Angeles neighborhoods where state housing policies are contentious.

“I attended a town hall against SB 50, which would have taken away local control of zoning and mandated that we allow three-story units peering down your backyard,” Clark said.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who promoted the legislation, continues to push for major changes to planning and environmental laws, and advocates for high-density projects that include affordable housing along major transit corridors. He has since proposed four new housing bills—SB 9, SB 10, SB 477, and SB 478—dealing with zoning and housing density.

Wiener has said “he thinks that the single-family home is racist,” according to Clark. “And to me, that’s very demeaning to the black community. I went to that town hall and I drove around my old neighborhood. I became emotional as I realized that these homes are virtually all owned by black homeowners that have overcome so much racism, so many obstacles, that they had to overcome the racial inequity to get the American Dream.”

Wiener didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

Clark pointed out that Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who attended the town hall and is now a SCAG regional councilmember, also voted against SB 50 last year when she was a state senator.

“At that meeting, I met several black homeowners that are very much concerned about the effects of these bills … and they are concerned about gentrification,” Clark said.

She said she’s worked with 350 black homeowners who are “very concerned … because these bills do not provide or mandate affordable housing, and they don’t give any incentives.”

“What these are, are gifts to white developers to come in,” she added.

Thrash-Ntuk said that while some black households have been able to achieve the American Dream of homeownership, about 40 percent of black families own their own homes compared to 70 percent of white families.

For the fourth quarter of 2020, 44.1 percent of black families owned their homes, compared to 74.5 percent of non-Hispanic white families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Thrash-Ntuk said that while more dialogue is needed to deal with local autonomy and zoning issues, addressing California’s homeless crisis is more urgent. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the homeless population in Los Angeles was estimated at 60,000, but has since grown to somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000, she said.

According to the most recent Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in 2020, more than 66,000 people were experiencing homelessness in L.A. County at the time.

‘Big Brother Watching’

Yorba Linda Mayor Peggy Huang told The Epoch Times the push for “inclusionary zoning” policies really means government-subsidized housing for lower-income households in traditionally wealthier neighborhoods.

Making market-rate housing affordable in expensive cities such as Yorba Linda and many others in Orange County is “ridiculous,” she said—unless the state is willing to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in “undefined government subsidies.”

She suggested that Gov. Gavin Newsom could face a recall election in part because of the state’s housing policies, and mentioned the governor’s proposed $4.3 million plan to create a housing accountability unit (HAU) that would police city governments on zoning.

“This whole housing accountability unit is Big Brother watching,” Huang said.

Newsom’s proposed 2012–2022 fiscal budget calls for funding the creation of the HAU at the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), to facilitate affordable housing production by monitoring local governments and enforcing existing legal requirements. The unit would encourage local governments to meet state-mandated housing quotas under the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) mandate.

Newsom said the HAU would monitor city council, board of supervisors, and planning commission meetings to “be proactive in terms of holding local government accountable to increasing housing production.”

But Huang said the HAU is just more state control.

“They will be hiring employees, and their job is to watch city council meetings, county supervisor meetings, and planning commission meetings. And if they do not basically approve projects to whatever the governor’s definition of being obstructionist is to housing production, they will sue the cities,” she said.

Newsom and his representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.