A City, If You Can Keep It: Growth, density and affordable housing

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

Last week an article was published in The Express titled “Study: Single-family zoning stifles Winters housing development options.” The article discussed a study from the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute. The name reminds me of the “Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to do Other Stuff Good Too.”

While the study does thoroughly quantify some aspects of communities throughout the state, it fails to show any cause and effect. The article makes a bold, unsubstantiated statement that “Single-family zoning ordinances are rooted in racial segregation and continue to be highly correlated with it.” Your R1/R2 zoned single-family home is racist and discriminatory, shame on you.

Despite what this study feebly attempts to imply, correlation does not equal causation. The only bias in housing these days is economics and the Self-Selection Bias, which really explains most inequities in our country. The choices many people make in their lives dictate the outcomes resulting in de facto segregation from self-selection.

Winters, however, runs contrary to supposed zoning-based racial segregation in single-family home communities. The study says similarly zoned communities are 17 percent Hispanic. According to the census Winters is 47 percent Hispanic. The presupposition for this study, that zoning itself is racially exclusionary, seems to not be valid in Winters.

The Express article states that “Jurisdictions with higher percentages of single-family zoning also had higher home values.” The very next paragraph then says “… the Sacramento region faces pressure from a growing population as rising housing costs in the nearby Bay Area and the city of Sacramento itself…”

So single-family home zoning is associated with higher home values but people are moving to communities with high rates of single-family home zoning because it’s more affordable than the places with high-density zoning which they are moving away from because they cost too much. Circular arguments do tend to have an elliptical shape.

The study appears to be nonsense that attempts to use correlation rather than root cause analysis to blame zoning for certain municipalities not being perfectly reflective of the diversity of the state.

What would a higher rate of multi-family zoning look like here? It would not be affordable housing, it’s too expensive to build homes in California. The only way to fix that is to stop electing the same characters in Sacramento who make it expensive to do anything in this state.

Counterintuitively, zoning denser hasn’t reduced market value. Current R3 multi-family home zoning in Winters built since 2016 sells for up to $615,000 which is more than many R1 single-family homes in town. Market dictates price.

Where would this zoning go? Nearly all of the undeveloped land in Winters has a project planned. Significant multi-family zoning would have to be done north of Moody Slough. Do we risk violating the order from the 1992 lawsuit Michel v Winters by packing R3/R4 zoning there?

There’s also an environmental impact. More people per acre means more vehicle miles driven because people have a daily commute of 30–90 minutes round trip to work outside of town. Carbon emissions would increase which is the opposite of what our Climate Action Plan calls for. Do we knowingly make one problem worse in hopes of maybe alleviating another? Bedroom communities are not environmentally friendly.

The study shows that single-family home zoning is associated with cleaner air, cleaner water, and a lower risk of lead exposure. It’s better for the environment. More people per acre would increase the strain on our water supply, as well. We don’t have a good estimate of the population size our current water infrastructure can support. I made a guestimate a year ago but I have no idea if I am correct and no one seems to have the answer.

Most importantly, the intangibles that make Winters Winters would diminish if we become dense suburban sprawl. People move to Winters because they like what it offers, not because they wish it was Vallejo or Walnut Creek.

Bottom line — People seem to want single-family housing. Builders and cities aren’t forcing people to live in single-family homes against their will. Single-family homes are built because that is what the market demands and what makes financial sense to build. It’s not racism, it’s economics and math.

Can we build affordable single family R1/R2 housing? I think yes.

We live in Winters because we like the community and the environment. If people want to live in higher-density homes they move to Natomas, downtown Sacramento, Alameda, or San Francisco.

Does this mean there is no place for higher-density housing in Winters? Not at all. I think the interspersion of R3/R4 zoning in the new developments is appropriate (and still incomplete). But you cannot both want to preserve Winters’ small-town charm and advocate for a surge of high-density housing by claiming not doing so is discriminatory and racist.

Growth will happen, we don’t need to force it. Even if we aren’t meeting the timelines or desires of academics from Berkley and Enterprise writers from Davis.

For those of you who support the elimination of single-family zoning, you are in the minority opinion locally and statewide.

But I am not opposed to experimentation, so I encourage you to lead by example. If you think there needs to be more high-density housing, SB 9 and SB 10 passed last year allow you to subdivide your lot and build duplexes turning your single-family home parcel into four homes. City Council cannot stop you. You have the power to be the change you want to see in our community. Or is it that you want this just not in your backyard?

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