If you want to understand San Francisco’s self-inflicted housing crisis, look no further than the city’s very first zoning law, commonly known as the Cubic Air Ordinance, which set a disturbing standard for the city’s eventual missteps. Proposed in 1870, during a time of rampant real-estate speculation in a boomtown renowned for its lawlessness, the new law required boarding houses to offer a minimum amount of space per tenant. Officials claimed this would promote safer housing and improve residents’ quality of life, a noble cause for government intervention.
But the law’s true purpose—to criminalize Chinese renters and landlords so their jobs and living space could be reclaimed for San Francisco’s white residents—set an ominous precedent. With the Cubic Air Ordinance, city leaders laid the groundwork for 150 years of exclusionary zoning or land-use policy designed to protect the status quo, rather than responsibly manage growth. Often fueled by racism and greed, the dark history of San Francisco urban planning is a story that’s still being told, its latest chapter being the city’s current housing crisis.
“The underlying use of zoning to segregate people and income levels is undeniable. It was part of the original intent.”
For visitors and locals alike, part of San Francisco’s allure is its seeming incongruity: Victorian houses perch on hills near glass skyscrapers, antique cable cars clank up the same streets where new technologies debut. Few realize how profoundly the city’s physical form has been shaped by its planning department, whose best intentions have been overshadowed by efforts to appease the city’s wealthy, well-connected homeowners.
“It is no accident that land is called real estate,” Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his influential 1985 book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanziation of the United States. “For many centuries, ownership of land has been not just the main but often the only basis of power.” This power was on full display earlier this year, during the debate over California Senate Bill 827, which would have “upzoned” or raised height limits near frequent transit stops. Many neighborhood groups, city councils, and politicians decried the loss of “local control”— “local” being a positive, vaguely artisanal-sounding buzzword used by city progressives who derided the bill as a “one-size-fits-all” solution that would hurt low-income residents.
However, American cities have consistently asserted so-called “local control” to increase inequality, establishing exclusionary zoning laws to prevent the construction of denser multifamily housing, redevelop low-income neighborhoods, and push poorer residents from their communities. In San Francisco, residents have exploited “local control” to make development as difficult as possible by lowering building-height limits, expanding zoning regulation, and increasing the veto power of homeowners. These privileged neighbors have often appropriated low-income residents’ fears of gentrification and eviction to block any new housing, despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that in markets with high demand, adding housing of any kind typically helps decrease displacement.
During the 19th century, city leaders had no qualms comparing Chinese boarders to filthy hogs in order to bolster their arguments against urban tenements; in recent years, objections to dense housing are made palatable by speaking of increased traffic or the loss of “neighborhood character.” So it’s somehow fitting our national housing crisis would peak in San Francisco, since the city was one of the first to introduce this idea of “local control,” via land-use zoning, more than 100 years ago.
San Francisco’s first street grid, encompassing 12 blocks around the nascent port, was laid out by Swiss sea captain Jean Jacques Vioget in 1839 when California was still governed by Mexico. After the community, then known as Yerba Buena, was occupied by American forces and became San Francisco in 1847, the new alcalde or mayor commissioned Jasper O’Farrell to create a new city survey. O’Farrell slightly corrected the North-South Vioget street grid, establishing regular lots around 46 yards wide with their southern boundary at a new wide boulevard called Market Street, extending perpendicular from the wharf all the way to the hills of Twin Peaks.
South of Market Street—known as SoMa today—was given a separate grid with wider blocks around 92 yards each and streets running parallel to Market and the previously established route to Mission Dolores, now named Mission Street. Though no zoning regulations were established with these surveys, SoMa’s extra-long blocks of marshland, which were less desirable than the more stable ground north of Market, eventually became the default location for industrial uses like manufacturing, wholesale distribution, and warehousing.
However, the push to legally separate noxious pollution from San Francisco’s residential and business districts led to one of the country’s earliest attempts to restrict land usage: In the 1850s, city leaders created a new licensing system for slaughterhouses that forced these businesses to relocate south of Harrison Street in SoMa, with additional regulations in 1864 pushing hog yards and slaughterhouses even further south to Islais Creek.
A few years later, in 1870, San Francisco leaders passed Order 939 Regulating Lodging Houses, also known as the Cubic Air Ordinance, at the urging of anti-Chinese labor groups that formed in response to the Gold Rush immigration boom. The new law required 500 cubic feet of space per occupant of any lodging room in the city, but it was only enforced in areas housing mostly Chinese residents, resulting in hundreds of arrests.
As an editorial cartoon at the time pointed out, the city’s jails were often more crowded than legally allowed, but since the purpose was to punish those of Chinese descent, nobody at City Hall cared about the hypocrisy. “The whole point of this law was to criminalize Chinese poverty,” says Devin McCutchen, a historian who’s done extensive research on the San Francisco Planning Department and helped write its Centennial Brochure.
In the 1880s, the city made further attempts to regulate building types, ostensibly mitigating the hazards of public laundry facilities. Such laundries were banned from all wooden buildings or residential neighborhoods without the express consent of the Board of Supervisors (known in most places as the city council). However, the city’s unequal enforcement revealed these laws as blatantly racist attempts to purge Chinese-owned laundries from San Francisco. “These 19th-century stories are really telling because, on one hand, you have this idea about the desire to rationalize the use of space and to make life more pleasant for people,” McCutchen says. “But on the flip side, you have the Cubic Air and Laundry Ordinances, which are all about testing the waters for using laws about the built environment in order to penalize people and to dictate the whims of the ruling class.”
With its 1886 decision in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the U.S. Supreme Court found one of the laundry ordinances to be discriminatory towards Chinese business owners, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and struck it down. (Eventually, this precedent would be used for many major civil rights rulings in the 20th century.) But the larger idea—that city laws could regulate land use and building design—was here to stay.
A few decades later, San Francisco had a rare opportunity in the aftermath of a horrific disaster—the near-total destruction of its downtown neighborhoods by the 1906 earthquake and fire. City leaders would have the chance to rebuild the city from the ground up, imposing more order and better regulations than during the haphazard boom days of the Gold Rush. However, in their haste to get San Francisco functioning again and utilize millions of dollars in insurance claims, grandiose plans to reshape the city’s neighborhoods were forgotten, including Daniel Burnham’s 1905 neoclassical master-plan. (In fact, little was done to even strengthen seismic standards or fire codes to ensure San Francisco wouldn’t experience a repeat of the 1906 disaster.) In 1909, the city adopted a new building code that required building inspections after construction was completed, but the development process was essentially unchanged—as long as the design met these codes, a property owner could build it, regardless of height or aesthetics.
Meanwhile, other municipalities were already giving their governments more power to regulate the built environment. In 1908, Los Angeles passed the country’s first citywide ordinances establishing separate residential and industrial zones to prevent the pollution of manufacturing from dirtying neighborhoods where people lived. Though challenged, the Supreme Court would find in favor of Los Angeles’ land-use regulation in 1915. The following year, the Supreme Court also upheld a city’s rights to implement height restrictions in the Boston case of Welch v. Swasey, clearing the way for future zoning plans limiting a property’s size.
From there, cities across the country began working to pass laws that would keep industrial and commercial development, as well as lower-income residents, out of particular neighborhoods. New York City holds the distinction of creating the country’s first comprehensive zoning plan, which was released in 1916. It codified limits on building size in order to allow daylight and fresh air to reach the streets and sidewalks below.
City officials wanted to spare the outer boroughs from what they viewed as failures of regulation in Manhattan: The oversupply of office space, dark canyon-like streets, crowded tenement buildings, and a generally unstable real-estate market. In addition to requiring stepbacks, meaning a building had to recede gradually from its lot line after a certain height, the 1916 ordinance also outlined separate areas for residential and commercial buildings.
Meanwhile, the 1906 earthquake had inspired San Francisco’s leaders to begin thinking about the bigger picture and how they might encourage some activities in particular neighborhoods, whether governmental, office, industrial, nightlife, residential, or retail. Erica Fischer—a San Francisco software developer, cartographer, and urban-planning aficionado who has pored over archives about the city’s planning department—says the devastation of San Francisco’s City Hall and government buildings prompted city leaders to consider the benefits of a more organized Civic Center. “Somebody needed to make decisions about where it should be and what other government buildings should be near it,” Fischer says, “so they decided we needed a planning commission.”
Voters approved an amendment in 1912 that gave the Board of Supervisors the power to appoint a commission to “devise plans for the improvement and beautification of San Francisco.” The mayor and city supervisors were loath to give up their authority over development, so when the four-member commission was finally appointed in 1917, the group had no staff or budget to craft a citywide zoning map. “The immediate power they had was to make a zoning code,” Fisher says, “which would have the ability to regulate types of buildings and building setbacks,” meaning the distance a building must be from the public right-of-way. Business-oriented groups like the San Francisco Real Estate Board, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Commonwealth Club used their influence to support citywide zoning, particularly for the ways that it could improve property values by separating different types of land use and expanding residential development.
By 1920, the commission had completed a draft of its new zoning ordinance, establishing six major land-use categories: 1st and 2nd Residential, Light and Heavy Industrial, Commercial, and an Unrestricted category. On the face of it, the new zoning was created with a Progressive Era ideology that government should curb the ills of industrialization and improve life for its citizens.
“In theory, zoning was designed to protect the interests of all citizens by limiting land speculation and congestion,” Kenneth T. Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier. “In actuality, zoning was a device to keep poor people and obnoxious industries out of affluent areas. And in time, it also became a cudgel used by suburban areas to whack the central city.” Jackson points out that the most strident advocates of stronger land-use restrictions lived in suburban districts on the city’s fringe, a tradition that continues to this day. “They sought minimum lot and setback requirements [regulations that drive up the cost of housing] to ensure that only members of acceptable social classes could settle in their privileged sanctuaries.”
How did politicians justify this new regulation to the public? “The cleaned-up version was to keep the nuisances separated and segregated from homes in the name of public safety,” says Amit Ghosh, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department. “But the underlying use of zoning to segregate people and income levels is undeniable. It was part of the original intent.” While provisions excluding particular races from all residential-only zones were removed from the final version of the 1920 zoning ordinance to get around discrimination laws, the planning commission publicly acknowledged that some areas were designated residential-only as a way to prevent Japanese-owned businesses from moving in or expanding, since Japanese shops were viewed as a threat to white-owned businesses in the Fillmore area.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court had declared racially biased zoning unconstitutional in 1917, private developers and homeowners could legally establish segregated neighborhoods by inserting racist ownership requirements into their building deeds, known as “racially restrictive covenants.” Ghosh explains that while these weren’t municipal laws, they were overlooked by city officials. “They were not explicit city codes, but they were operational,” Ghosh says. “They were recognized by the banks and the people who made loans, and I believe the police looked the other way, although they were not within the city’s expressed public codes.” These racial covenants were also reinforced by the prejudice of surrounding property owners, real-estate boards, and neighborhood associations, and would eventually be upheld by a 1926 Supreme Court decision.
When San Francisco’s first zoning ordinance passed in 1921, it essentially mirrored the previously established development of San Francisco. The planning commission’s vision for future growth would ideally raise property values via land speculation—particularly on the undeveloped southern and western edges of the city—so they zoned these undeveloped areas to accommodate “desirable” new residents. “It basically said, from the get-go, the direction the city needs to take with its remaining undeveloped land is a suburban one,” McCutchen says.
As Fischer explains, the commission wanted to establish areas for single-family homes where there were no apartments; places for apartments where there was no commerce; and places for commerce where there weren’t any industrial buildings. Though the 1st Residential zone included density limits, allowing only single-family homes, no other districts had limitations on building size or height. “The magnitude of differences that were allowed within each of these categories was just mind-boggling and huge by the standard of anything that followed,” Fischer says. “If you had a property with a corner store on it, there was absolutely nothing to stop you from building an apartment building on that site, or for that matter, a 20-story skyscraper.”
In 1928, the commission finally established height limits of 40 feet for parts of the city’s wealthiest enclaves—the Marina, Pacific Heights, and Presidio Heights. That same year, the San Francisco Planning Commission gained additional power through a charter amendment, which included provisions for hiring a city planning engineer, posting neighborhood-development notices, and crafting the first citywide general plan. But the commission’s increased power did not mean more protection for city’s disadvantaged residents.
“In actuality, zoning was a device to keep poor people and obnoxious industries out of affluent areas.”
According to Marc Weiss’ 1988 article in Planning Perspectives, “working class areas, despite all the rhetoric about ‘protecting the whole city’ used to justify the legality of zoning, got very little protection.” Moneyed landowners continued to sway the commission’s opinions on zoning issues: While land-use was strictly enforced in wealthier residential areas and the downtown financial center, Weiss explains, the Board of Supervisors often granted zoning changes in other neighborhoods at the request of a property owner, “so long as it was accompanied by appropriate private compensation.”
During the 1930s, following years of debate over allowing gas stations in the residential zones of western neighborhoods, the Board of Supervisors granted the planning commission a new power, eventually dubbed “conditional use authorizations.” This meant the commission could approve projects that didn’t meet the established zoning code, depending on the “character of the improvements which will be placed on said property.” In other words, the commissioners could be even more subjective about projects that fell outside existing zoning laws.
Over the next decade, the San Francisco government gained further authority over planning and redeveloping portions of the city to reflect a more modern, car-centric vision. In 1942, the city formally created the planning department and hired its first director, L. Deming Tilton, whose prior planning experience was a perfect fit, since it mostly entailed suburban, auto-friendly development. At the time, a growing movement of Modernist architects and planners promoted a thorough rethinking of city design, which focused on rational plans to maximize efficiency. Groups like Telesis and the San Francisco Housing Association (SFPHA), pushed for the redevelopment of entire neighborhoods—whose residents were not consulted—in order to erase poverty and blight.
Under Tilton’s guidance, San Francisco finally created the long-awaited general plan, which was released in 1945 and envisioned the city as a machine with many older parts needing replacement, an idea heavily influenced by Telesis and other similar organizations. Those “blighted” parts the plan identified just so happened to be the working-class neighborhoods mostly populated by people of color: the Western Addition, South of Market, Chinatown, the Mission, and the Bayview-Hunter’s Point. According to the planning department’s Centennial Brochure, “The implications were that ‘blight’ stood in the way of progress, that it could spread, and that it needed to be removed before it killed the city. It was a deeply political term firmly rooted in structural racism, which relied on fears of white flight and urban disinvestment to justify the wholesale removal of communities of color.” Notably, the replacements for such “slums” were apartments, rather than the suburban, single-family homes reserved for San Francisco’s white residents.
Coincidentally, California also passed the Community Redevelopment Act in 1945, which let cities establish their own agencies to rebuild impoverished neighborhoods, often using eminent domain if property owners refused to sell. Though ostensibly separate organizations with different goals, the planning department worked in tandem with the city’s new Redevelopment Agency. “If you look at the 1945 General Plan for San Francisco, there’s a whole section indicating areas of blight, and that designation was a prerequisite for initiating redevelopment,” McCutchen says. “They were working together, clearly.”
During this time, many of San Francisco’s low-rise residential districts were still contractually limited to white residents; even affluent celebrities like Willie Mays were rejected from purchasing homes because of their skin color. If an African American family did find a homeowner willing to sell them a property, they often couldn’t get a loan because the federal government and private banks had refused to back most loans to people of color since the Great Depression.
In 1934, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to insure private mortgages. The FHA’s underwriting handbook included guidelines that pushed cities to create racially segregated neighborhoods and encouraged banks to avoid areas with “inharmonious racial groups,” essentially meaning any neighborhood that wasn’t exclusively white. Meanwhile, the federally sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) had been set up to help homeowners refinance their home loans in an attempt to stop the spread of foreclosures, a widespread problem during the Great Depression. However, recipients of these low-interest, long-term loans were typically chosen based on HOLC’s residential “safety maps,” which divided neighborhoods in four categories: Green indicated the most desirable areas for lenders; blue was good; yellow was supposedly in decline; and red marked the riskiest areas. As HOLC’s racist literature explained, besides containing older building stock, red districts were under “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.”
The FHA endorsed this process, known today as “redlining,” as a legal way for private lenders to deny home loans—America’s primary way of building financial security—to people of color and other working-class Americans. (Redlining was officially outlawed with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the damage was already widespread, and the impact of withholding financial support to entire neighborhoods lasts to this day.)
While the federal government was assisting white families in seeking the “American dream” of homeownership, it was conspiring to deny the same opportunities to people of color. On a local level, San Francisco leaders engineered the destruction of the city’s thriving African American community by forcibly evicting residents and businesses in the name of urban renewal, knowing full well they wouldn’t be able to relocate in the city’s other central neighborhoods.
In its own documentation regarding the Western Addition redevelopment project, the city acknowledged that the overhaul would raise housing costs and displace most of the area’s original residents, without providing any immediate solutions for housing them, which is exactly what happened. Due to funding delays and other issues, many city blocks remained vacant for more than a decade, devastating this once-vital urban neighborhood.
A 1963 article on the project from the San Francisco Chronicle captured the callous attitude toward the plight of poorer residents, stating: “Many of those displaced felt bitter at having ceded their sleazy homes to make way for smart new modern dwellings too expensive for them.” The story also quoted Redevelopment Director Justin Herman, who made it clear he valued the project’s economic benefits over the humans being displaced: “How else can we restore long-suffering business districts to healthy economic ways of conducting business, with adequate facilities and parking arrangements?”
Although the planning department clashed with politicians, residents, and developers throughout the 1950s over how to accommodate the city’s postwar population boom, which delayed a new zoning plan for more than a decade, its powers had also been steadily expanded. One major change occurred in 1954, after a developer proposed a motel in the Sunset district. The Shriners Hospital across the street objected, explaining that current law allowed hotels in the neighborhood, but motels hadn’t been included in the 1920s code. In response, the city attorney advised the planning commission that the city had “supreme control” to issue building permits and could use its own discretion to decide whether projects were compliant.
“The party with the most power is usually, in this society, the party with the most money.”
Though the attorney called this “a sensitive discretion and one which must be exercised with the utmost restraint,” the decision was monumental, giving the commission increasingly subjective power to interpret the zoning code and laying the groundwork for “discretionary review” hearings on any project. As one commissioner who disagreed with the change said at the time, “all anyone will have to do is dredge up some feeble-minded citizen to oppose, and we will sit for a full-dress hearing.” And that’s precisely what happened: The absence of “by-right” approval meant that even if a project met all zoning requirements, anyone with enough time and money could pay to appeal the development and attempt to trigger a discretionary-review hearing, which often added months or years of delays to the approval process.
“Almost everything now has a discretionary review, and that’s a terrible thing,” former San Francisco Planning Director Allan Jacobs explained to McCutchen for the San Francisco Public Library’s oral history of the department. “One of the things I found out over time about discretionary review is if there is a disagreement, the force or the party that usually gets its way is the party with the most power. The party with the most power is usually, in this society, the party with the most money.”
However, many citizens were rightfully growing frustrated with the department’s actions, particularly decisions to bulldoze thriving neighborhoods to better serve suburban commuters. Beginning in the 1940s, the planning department had drafted citywide traffic plans that featured a network of freeways crisscrossing several neighborhoods, including parts of Golden Gate Park. Many residents were not happy to see their communities wrecked by these enormous elevated freeways, and in 1959, citizen activists presented the Board of Supervisors with a petition with more than 30,000 signatures demanding for most of these projects to be halted.
“This fear that change was being directed by some powerful external forces came to a head as the freeways started to completely rupture neighborhoods,” Ghosh says. “These big new planning ideas—about accommodating cars and street space, moving people here and there and everywhere, filling up the bay, and doubling the size of places like Sausalito—all those things came together, and people said ‘Look, this juggernaut needs to be stopped.’” In a major victory for community organizers, the Board of Supervisors halted work on the Embarcadero Freeway in 1959, simultaneously cancelling several other planned freeway projects that had not yet begun construction. (Damage to the elevated Embarcadero Freeway during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hastened its demise, and the 1.2 mile stub was finally torn down in the early 1990s.) “Once citizens succeeded in stopping the freeways, that confirmed the power of the people in a place like San Francisco,” Ghosh says.
The new grass-roots groups pushing back against unlimited development also included a growing coalition of environmentalists. “Environmentalism, in its early phase, was a really big tent,” McCutchen says. “You had a definition of environmentalism that included open-space preservation, the preservation of views, and the preservation of natural, wild systems. But historic preservation was also seen as an environmental issue. Creating laws to restrict the explosion of advertising signs around on the city, that was an environmental concern.”
The city finally approved a new and highly detailed zoning code in 1960, which catered to white-flight fantasies of the era by encouraging single-family homes in the newer, mostly white neighborhoods around the city’s fringe while allowing relatively unlimited growth in the downtown core. Fischer believes the larger motivation behind the 1960 code came from national politics, “this idea that there was an urban crisis and we need to rebuild our cities—to tear down whole neighborhoods and build them anew,” he says. Amid hand-wringing over the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement and fears of inner-city crime, federal policies in the 1950s and ‘60s supported redevelopment, but prevented urban centers like San Francisco from receiving funds without explicit rules for future construction. “If they did tear down whole neighborhoods but new neighborhoods weren’t carefully zoned, they would just get new anarchy replacing the old anarchy,” Fischer says, “and they did not want anarchy. They wanted precise, detailed planning.”
In 1962, the planning commission passed the Sign Ordinance, which limited the placement of advertising and billboards to protect San Francisco’s appearance, which showed the growing power of neighborhood coalitions over the wealthy developers and businesses that had dominated the planning process in previous decades. During the late 1960s, San Francisco also adopted ordinances allowing the designation of historic buildings and districts, just as hundreds of Victorian-era structures were being demolished by the city’s Redevelopment Agency in the Western Addition neighborhood. The city also released its first Housing Inventory Report around this time, using computers to try and simulate future growth.
Meanwhile, environmental demands were also seeping into statewide development policies: In 1970, the state passed the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which mandated that developers create an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for projects requiring discretionary approval, and in 1973, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors established its own code to implement the law. The result was even greater public input and potential appeals than ever before, beginning with the landmark case Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors of Mono County in 1972. Friends of Mammoth filed the suit to challenge Mono County’s approval of a condominium project in the Mammoth Lakes area and won, thus expanding CEQA’s coverage to include private projects “for which a government permit or other entitlement for use is necessary.”
Fischer points out that while discretionary review gave the San Francisco Planning Commission the power to keep projects in limbo, CEQA lawsuits were something anyone could file. “In the pre-CEQA regime, if you wanted to protest a project, you had to persuade the planning commission that they should review it,” he says, “whereas with CEQA, anybody can directly challenge it.”
Ghosh agrees that the environmental law was often twisted to stop growth of any kind by tying up building projects in the slow-moving court system. “CEQA was a well-intentioned, publicly motivated piece of legislation,” he says. “But once the process was laid out, a whole industry of lawyers and environmental activists developed around it, making the process more arcane. In the end, CEQA became a tool to just stop development. If there is one change that I would like to see made right now, it would be to take the courts out of CEQA.”
As the threat of litigation became a new constant, the San Francisco Planning Department slowly began to craft a new approach to development. The city’s 1971 Urban Design Plan was the first to codify the shift in values from the Modernist freeway-and-tower model toward a greater respect for San Francisco’s unique neighborhoods and their human-scale features. The plan focused on preserving and expanding existing neighborhood character, and was influenced by a coalition of environmentalists, affordable-housing advocates, and preservation groups who recognized the power of zoning to limit change, for better or worse. For example, its guidelines for building size suggested that new development should mirror the “height and character of existing development.” Notably, many of the plan’s proposals to increase livability, such as greening public spaces and improving street safety, mostly omitted the city’s densest, lower-income neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and South of Market.
However, the plan also identified 11 areas for taller residential buildings, which local activists immediately fought as the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco. In the face of these criticisms, the department revised its plan after a series of public hearings, resulting in the removal of these high-rise zones.
But the largest legislative achievement of this emerging anti-growth coalition would be the Residential Rezoning of 1978, a project to implement stricter controls across all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. In addition to creating 40-foot building-height limits for most residential areas, the legislation included new setback rules (regulating how far a building could be from the public right-of-way), low-density requirements (limiting the number of housing units in a given building), and overall design guidelines aimed at preserving entire neighborhoods in amber. The decision to adopt these new limits included a lengthy EIR and public-hearing process, featuring speakers both for and against such exclusionary zoning. For example, several homeowners echoed the sentiments of Ms. Marie Potz, who said she was perfectly happy with her street’s height limit being lowered after someone had built “a huge three-story monstrosity.” Potz made the unfounded claim that there was no housing shortage and asserted that the city had overproduced apartments. “What we need,” she said, “is more single-family houses.”
In sharp contrast to these kinds of aesthetic complaints, many residents, homeowner associations, and community groups spoke forcefully against the rezoning and the inevitable rise in housing prices at a time when San Francisco was already short on affordable housing. Ed Lawson, representing the Richmond District Council, said the zoning was too restrictive and would harm low-income residents the most. Jerry Horowitz of the San Francisco Planners Network explained that the rising cost of housing was already changing the makeup of neighborhoods. “While well-prepared groups concerned with preserving the character of their neighborhoods have had their demands for lower densities heard, low-income residents have lacked the organization to speak up for their own housing needs,” he said. Jenny Lew of the Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resources Center pointed out that the EIR didn’t investigate the impact of rezoning on the city’s low-income households, and lamented the use of discretionary review to stop low- and moderate-income housing from being built, a process that continues to play out today. “These delays only succeed in encumbering massive cost increases, often threatening, if not destroying, the entire economic feasibility of a project even before it gets through the review process,” Lew explained.
Sam Schneider, a building-design engineer, said the legislation would increase the cost of construction and the tighter rental market would create hardships for the elderly and others with limited income. “Let’s remember that this shortage of new housing has an effect on rents of all housing, such that all housing rents must go up,” Schneider said. Quentin Kopp, Supervisor for the West Portal neighborhood, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle calling the proposal a “disaster” for contributing to the existing housing shortage and pricing the middle class out of the city.
The planning department’s own EIR estimated that the zoning changes would eliminate around 180,000 legally buildable units from the city, or about a one-third drop in the city’s potential for growth. In July of 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle also reported that even Rai Okamoto, director of the planning department, had reservations about downzoning the city, echoing fears that it would raise housing costs and force middle-income residents out of San Francisco.
It’s clear that many San Franciscans were well aware this rezoning would lead the city toward a housing crisis. The planning commissioners, however, were not moved. Their testimony throughout the hearings made it clear they valued maintaining the city’s predominately suburban layout over affordability. In response to a homeowner who was unhappy that his property would be downzoned to allow fewer units, commissioner Sue Bierman gave a quintessential anti-growth response—countering that San Franciscans were concerned about parking, traffic, and sunlight reaching their backyards, embracing a shift toward zoning that would preserve “more comfortable neighborhoods.” Instead of listening to those folks worried about becoming homeless, the commissioners focused on the single-family homeowners worried about shadows on their yards and parking for their cars.
In the final minutes of the June 27, 1978, meeting, San Francisco’s planning commissioners prepared to approve the EIR, along with its damning final clause, which explained that the project would reduce the amount of housing that could legally be built in San Francisco. “As a result the cost of housing may increase, and that with increasing housing costs, some population groups may find it difficult to live in San Francisco. The proposed zoning will affect the low- and moderate-income households more than any other group and mitigation measures are proposed to help alleviate this impact.”
But commissioner Bierman said she was “troubled” by this statement, and commissioner Nakashima agreed, complaining that it wasn’t solely the planning department’s fault if housing prices continued to rise. Commissioner Rosenblatt suggested removing the clause entirely, and that’s exactly what they did—erasing their acknowledgement of the plan’s disastrous effects from the document moments before approving it.
To make a bad decision worse, the 1978 rezoning was adopted less than a month after California voters had passed Proposition 13, a now-infamous law that fixed property taxes at the 1976 rate with yearly inflation of no more than 2 percent, along with a reassessment whenever a property changed hands at 1 percent of the new sale price. Prop. 13 further incentivized homeowners to remain in their homes as long as possible, to oppose new housing construction so their own property value would increase, and to pass their property tax breaks onto their children rather than sell their homes.
San Francisco’s new zoning left most of the city restricted to buildings under 40 feet in height with no more than three residential units allowed. The legislation also gave implicit support to homeowners seeking to block construction of apartment buildings, even if they were allowed under existing zoning. Just as Kenneth T. Jackson explained in Crabgrass Frontier, yet again, “zoning was used by the people who already lived within the arbitrary boundaries of a community as a method of keeping everyone else out. Apartments, factories, and ‘blight,’ euphemisms for blacks and people of limited means, were rigidly excluded.”
As a result, new residential development began creeping into the city’s industrial zones, particularly South of Market, replacing vacant lots, warehouses, and factories with new apartments. “Wherever they found the dirtiest land, they would build housing because that was the cheapest,” Ghosh says. These areas mostly lacked parks, schools, grocery stores, transit, and other infrastructure needed to support this growth—a legacy that neighborhoods like SoMa and Mission Bay are still grappling with today—but they were the primary areas where dense construction was legally permitted. “We were plunking people down to live in terrible industrial areas with no human services,” Ghosh adds.
The zoning changes also encouraged a wave of smaller buildings in low-density residential areas that maximized the size limits on each lot. These generic boxy buildings came to be known as “Richmond specials,” after the neighborhood they frequently appeared in, and were seen as an ugly scourge by their neighbors, who used public appeals to try and halt them. “Every project became a discretionary review,” says Ghosh. “And based on that, we said, ‘Look, we need to make rules for what’s acceptable so the building would be permitted without question.’” But even after adjusting the regulations, San Francisco residents and the planning commission continued to abuse the power of discretionary review. “People were coming and arguing about their petunias being shaded by somebody’s deck,” Ghosh says. “So the planning commission began taking this type of appeal, invariably invoking discretionary review.”
Even as major developers focused their efforts on building office and hotel towers downtown, many San Franciscans worried this growth would displace those who lived nearby in the city’s few affordable, mixed-use, and high-density neighborhoods. Besides the Western Addition redevelopment, city leaders were working to demolish blocks of low-income housing near the Embarcadero and in South of Market’s “skid row” to construct market-rate apartments, offices, hotels, a convention center, and a sports stadium.
Both of these areas were eventually redeveloped, but the public battle between evicted elderly residents of the International Hotel and their corporate landlords crystallized the resistance to urban renewal projects and the grassroots support of slow-growth policies. During the 1970s and ’80s, activists like Alvin Duskin and the city’s alternative newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, pushed for ballot initiatives that would limit construction heights downtown and stop the expansion of the city’s high-rise district. Though these initiatives failed, they did convince city leaders to implement more restrictions on commercial development, including a cap on the annual growth of office space beginning with its 1985 Downtown Plan.
One neighborhood that managed to fend off dramatic gentrification and stabilize many lower-income residents while retaining its dense, mixed-use character was the Tenderloin. After three high-rise tourist hotels were planned for the neighborhood’s border with Union Square in 1980, activists managed to convince the city to establish new zoning controls that would retain the area’s residential buildings and limit new growth to between 8 and 13 stories. In contrast to the suburban downzoning of wealthier neighborhoods, the Tenderloin’s residential density was prioritized in order to maintain affordability.
Soon after, nonprofits like the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation began buying up land and buildings to keep more than a quarter of the area’s housing permanently affordable, and the city passed legislation to prevent the destruction of single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs. (Sometimes called “residential hotels,” these buildings typically include very small studio apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens.) The battle with tourist-hotel developers also led to some of the city’s first “community-benefit laws,” or those requiring funding for neighborhood needs, with a percentage of hotel-room rates going toward the city’s affordable housing fund.
“The Tenderloin rezoning was done to take action against the encroachment of downtown into our valuable stock of residential units,” Ghosh says. “In the following few years, the Downtown Plan was adopted, which included a very powerful tool, the transfer of development rights, to direct new growth to where we wanted it to occur. We didn’t want the impact of growth to destroy the precious fabric of San Francisco.” In response to such citizen-led pushback, the planning department began working to establish new public-benefit requirements for downtown development, such as providing public art, building privately-managed public open space, constructing new housing in correlation with job growth, and preserving historic buildings. The department’s work with the Tenderloin and its Downtown Plan showed how zoning could help stabilize low-income residents and protect vital, mixed-use neighborhoods.
Yet the preservation of low-income housing in the Tenderloin did not lead to a citywide embrace of apartment buildings, particularly in the city’s protectionist suburban enclaves. In the 1980s, the planning department began developing specific neighborhood plans for several mixed-use districts to help preserve affordable housing and a diverse mix of small businesses. Since then, most of the city’s neighborhoods have received detailed plans for the future, though unfortunately, vocal homeowners have often succeeded at codifying anti-growth goals in these plans. “Density was demonized, and we need to stop that,” Ghosh explains. “Density is a good thing for the city. You have to have density in order to provide diversity, and not just diversity of people—it’s also the diversity of urban amenities that should be accessible to people.”
Many beloved historic apartment buildings throughout San Francisco’s residential neighborhoods would be illegal under today’s zoning limitations, since the planning department has prioritized space for single-family homes versus multifamily housing affordable to working-class residents. “The 1960 code basically still stands,” Fischer says. “There have been a lot of changes in detail, but the structure of it is still present.”
As part of the 1978 rezoning that limited new housing in most residential areas, the planning commission made several recommendations for ways to counteract this constraint on growth—such as consolidating the review and permitting process, particularly for subsidized or affordable projects—though most of these ideas still haven’t been implemented 50 years later. In 2008, San Francisco’s planning department finally began the process of reforming its discretionary review policies, but nearly a decade later, the proposals have not been adopted. (The department has since removed the details of these reforms from its website, and did not respond to requests for comment on its failure to implement them.)
“I don’t think that the planning commission has ever given up any power over the course of its evolution,” Fischer says. “Discretionary review has been available since the 1940s, but it was something that only happened in especially egregious cases. You can no longer say that it’s a ‘rarely exercised power’ because basically every project has a discretionary review.” During interviews for the San Francisco Public Library’s oral history of the planning department, several former staffers and department directors also bemoaned the use of discretionary review to block any new development, including projects that complied with current zoning.
Because of the recalcitrance of municipal leadership to take on San Francisco’s absurd approvals process and its legacy of exclusionary zoning, California’s state government has finally begun to preempt these problematic policies with laws designed to expedite the creation of new housing, like Scott Wiener’s SB-35, which was adopted in 2017 and demands that cities actually meet their regional housing goals. The bill is a reminder that land-use laws can be a force for good, with zoning used to protect vulnerable residents from the fallout of profit-obsessed property owners.
“When I was first started doing this research a decade ago, I was really dissatisfied with the dominant narratives about planning and development policy in the Bay Area,” McCutchen says. “I felt like all we had were stories about these evil, rapacious developers who wanted to bulldoze neighborhoods and plow in the Bay and put freeways through every block. Then, there were these valiant neighborhood activists who fought for more humane values.
“I also find there’s this new narrative coalescing in our current political moment,” he continues, “which basically says the environmentalists were self-serving, shortsighted, and fundamentally just didn’t want to see change. It corrects flaws of the older narrative, but it also oversimplifies them and does it a disservice. Different waves of people have tried to reform the city, reacting in very rational ways to their present crises.”
In fact, many San Francisco residents who fought against multifamily buildings in the past have slowly come around to the disasters of endless sprawl and benefits of denser, walkable neighborhoods. As Alvin Duskin, the original face of San Francisco’s battle against tall buildings, said in a 2009 interview with SFGate, “We really didn’t understand the consequences of mindless suburban sprawl. The environmental and psychological damage of spreading out like that is so severe … the problem for planners is to raise the city’s density without creating a destructive environment. We need cities for people, not cars.”
Other anti-growth organizers regret the impact such suburban zoning has had on affordability and accessibility. Howard Strassner was a neighborhood organizer who helped craft the 1970s-era zoning that restricted new development on West Portal Avenue to a single story. From today’s vantage point, Strassner recognizes the benefits of taller apartment buildings, particularly for older folks on fixed incomes who can’t manage stairs and need apartments with elevators, calling the height limits he once advocated for “silly” in a 2016 interview with the San Francisco Examiner.
Still others admit that the city’s omnipresent homeless crisis is inextricably linked to its failure to build enough dense housing on its scarce vacant property, while protecting huge swaths of single-family homes with astronomical values and artificially low property taxes. However, few of these former-activists have attempted to overturn the zoning that prevents two-thirds of San Francisco from adding apartment buildings.
Instead, anti-growth residents continue to sink development projects, ranging from an all affordable senior-housing complex to a downtown high-rise development that would cast a partial shadow over a condo building’s courtyard pool. The city’s planning department and planning commission (whose members are overwhelmingly homeowners in a majority-renter city) remain complicit in obstructing all kinds of new housing in order to preserve most of the city’s neighborhoods exactly as they are, crisis be damned.
And yet, while many residents fight to maintain the San Francisco’s exclusionary zoning, there are signs of a growing opposition, particularly among younger generations who’ve been almost entirely priced out of the market. The city’s recently elected Mayor London Breed was endorsed by local Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) groups, in part because Breed supported Wiener’s proposal to upzone neighborhoods near transit, regardless of opposition from homeowners. Major publications like the San Francisco Chronicle are using their voices to call for more housing construction and the removal of red tape. Local companies are even proposing to build their own multifamily housing developments to help ease the crisis for employees.
Despite the endless opposition to nearly any project, from the largest towers to the smallest bathroom renovation, Ghosh says that for him, the growing involvement of San Franciscans in the city’s planning process did have a silver lining. “As a bureaucrat in the planning department, I was always irked by community groups being a pain the butt,” Ghosh says. “But at the same time, that movement kept planners honest and gave us meaning in what we were doing. They made you strive for better things. In other places I’ve worked as a planner, nobody really cared what you did. But here, I felt like what we did mattered.”
Further reading on the history of urban planning in San Francisco:
- Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanziation of the United States by Kenneth T. Jackson, 1985.
- “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)” by Kim-Mai Cutler, TechCrunch, 2014.
- “How Urban Renewal Tried To Rebuild The Fillmore” by Walter Thompson, Hoodline, 2016.
- “New City: San Francisco Redeveloped” published by the San Francisco City Planning Commission, 1947.
- Records of the San Francisco Planning Commission meetings from 1978, via archive.org.
- “The Anti-Chinese Cubic Air Ordinance” by Joshua S. Yang, The American Journal of Public Health, 2009.
- “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning inSan Francisco, 1914-1928” by Marc A. Weiss, Planning Perspectives, 1988.
- “Zoning’s Next Century” published by SPUR, 2017.