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Housing construction has gradually rebounded in California since the Great Recession / Associated Press file photo Housing construction has gradually rebounded in California since the Great Recession / Associated Press file photo

Housing construction has gradually rebounded in California since the Great Recession / Associated Press file photo

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols August 17, 2020

Trump Claims California Lawmaker Pushed To ‘Abolish Single-Family Zoning.’ Is He Right?

If Your Time is short

  • President Trump and Housing Secretary Ben Carson claimed a San Francisco lawmaker pushed "to abolish single-family zoning in California."

  • Housing experts say the claim is technically correct but leaves out key context.

  • State Sen. Scott Wiener’s failed Senate Bill 50 would have eliminated zoning across much of the state that allows for only single-family home construction.

  • SB 50 would not have abolished the construction of new single-family home neighborhoods.

  • The Democratic-controlled Legislature has rejected several versions of the bill.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson claimed yesterday that a California state lawmaker is trying to "abolish single-family zoning" in the state.

"For the past three years, the state senator who represents Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco, has led a push to abolish single-family zoning in California," Trump and Carson wrote about state Sen. Scott Wiener, D–San Francisco, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled "We’ll Protect America’s Suburbs." 

Wiener, called the op-ed "racist," and said it attacks him "for fighting to legalize affordable housing in neighborhoods zoned to only allow single-family housing."

"This is an ugly and desperate attempt to appeal to white suburbanites, whom they fear are going to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris this November," Wiener said in a press release on Monday. 

Last month, the Trump administration rescinded the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate. That Obama-era rule required communities that receive grants and housing aid to assess racial segregation in housing and offer plans to correct it. Advocates criticized the move, saying it would make it harder to bring lawsuits alleging discrimination in housing, while conservative groups said it would stop frivolous lawsuits.

Politics aside, we wanted to know more about Trump and Carson’s claim on housing in California. Is there really a push to "abolish single-family zoning" in the state? Or did they stretch the truth? 

We set out on a fact check. 

Our research

Like much in California’s housing world, the claim from Trump and Carson is confusing. 

From the viewpoint of housing and zoning experts, the administration’s claim is technically accurate but needs a lot of explaining and could be interpreted as misleading. 

In recent years, Wiener led the push to pass legislation to allow for greater housing density in California to meet the state’s lack of supply. 

His most recent effort, Senate Bill 50, stalled out in the Democratic-controlled Legislature earlier this year. Previous versions also failed. 

SB 50 would have required cities and counties to permit higher-density zoning near job and transit centers. But housing experts say that legislation doesn’t fit with Trump’s dark narrative about Democrats wanting to "destroy the suburbs," noting vast tracts of single-family homes would still be permitted across California communities.

In neighborhoods within a half mile of rail stations, ferry terminals and other transit hubs, this "upzoning" would greenlight mid-rise apartment towers of four or five stories. In spots farther from transit and jobs, it would permit dividing homes into duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in areas previously zoned only for single-family homes.  

Earlier in the op-ed, Trump and Carson claim that, if left in place, the federal housing rule they rescinded would also "abolish single-family zoning, compel the construction of high-density ‘stack and pack’ apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods, and forcibly transform neighborhoods." 

This gives the impression that the failed California legislation would do the same. But under the state bill, the private market would drive the construction of higher-density housing, not government. Local governments would not be compelled to build anything. And large tracts of single-family homes would still be permitted.

Among experts, a zoning designation communicates the maximum density that can be built on a property, but it doesn’t mean other less-dense options, such as single-family homes, are off limits. 

Of course, not everyone who reads the op-ed is a housing or zoning expert and they might be left with a very different impression, including the idea that there’s a push to abolish new single-family homes in California, which is not the case.

Here’s one viewpoint from a housing expert: 

"I think it is accurate," Ben Metcalf, managing director of UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, said of the claim. "There has been a longstanding effort over the last several years, among folks like Sen. Scott Wiener and other leaders in the Legislature and in the governor’s office, under Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov. Gavin Newsom, to try and create more flexibility for individual homeowners who want to add second units or third units or want to subdivide their lots." 

But, as Metcalf explained, abolishing single-family zoning doesn’t mean getting rid of the ability to build new single-family homes. 

"In President Trump and Secretary Carson’s op-ed, they are definitely doing some fear mongering here, making folks think that," said Metcalf, who led California’s Department of Housing and Community Development from 2015 to last year, and served in President Obama’s housing agency. "The implication here is, we here in California are trying to do away with the ability of folks to own and live in single-family homes. That’s just not it at all."

"I think it’s a major misconception and Trump and Carson are driving a bus through that misconception," Metcalf added.

‘No one is proposing to ban single-family homes’

In an interview on Monday, Wiener also said the claim was correct from a zoning perspective, but added a similar caveat. 

"By eliminating single-family home zoning, all we’re saying is people will get to choose if they want to build a single-family home or 2-unit building or a 3-unit building or whatever. It’s about giving people more latitude," Wiener said. "No one is proposing to ban single-family homes. Single-family homes are a very important part of our housing stock."

Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy at the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, wrote in an email that "people who aren't housing nerds (as Ben Metcalf, Sen. Wiener and I all are) find ‘abolish single-family zoning’ confusing. It sometimes gets repeated as ‘abolish (or ban) single-family homes’, which implies that someone will take a wrecking ball to existing homes. Not the same thing at all!"

Scheutz added that SB 50, if it had passed, "would be a very far cry from abolishing single-family zoning in California. SB50 would have applied to a limited set of geographic areas, mostly around transit stations and designated ‘job-rich’ communities."

Our rating

President Trump and Housing Secretary Ben Carson claimed that state Sen. Scott Wiener "has led a push to abolish single-family zoning in California" over the past three years. 

Wiener and housing experts say the claim is technically correct. In recent years, the lawmaker championed bills to allow for more apartments on land now zoned only for single-family homes. But they also say the statement takes things out of context and could be misleading. 

Among zoning experts, "abolishing" single-family zoning means to allow additional, higher-density options on the same property but not to eliminate the ability to build single-family homes. For others, however, the claim could be interpreted as ending the right to build single-family homes across the state or in parts of it. 

That was never proposed. Trump and Carson say nothing about that key information, leaving a potentially misleading impression. 

We rate the claim Half True. 

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Our Sources

President Trump and Housing Secretary Ben Carson, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, We’ll Protect America’s Suburbs, Aug. 16, 2020

Ben Metcalf, managing director, UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation, video interview, Aug. 17, 2020

Jenny Scheutz, fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Instituttion, email interview, Aug. 17, 2020

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, video interview, Aug. 17, 2020

PolitiFact California: Fact or Fiction? A Look At Claims About SB 50, One Of California’s Most Controversial Housing Bills, Jan. 21, 2020

Oregon Public Broadcasting, Oregon Strikes Exclusive Single-Family Zoning, But Effects May Take Years, July 3, 2019

NPR, Down In The Polls, Trump Pitches Fear: 'They Want To Destroy Our Suburbs', July 22, 2020

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Chris Nichols

Trump Claims California Lawmaker Pushed To ‘Abolish Single-Family Zoning.’ Is He Right?

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