When my family emigrated from our native South Africa to Southern California in the 1980s, my parents, my sister and I fell hard for this state’s endless suburban sprawl. To the four of us, the acres of subdivisions that had been mushrooming up across California since World War II were the embodiment of everything we’d been promised about America. A bigger-than-enough house, a two-car garage and a backyard of brilliant green lawn — this was the California Dream we’d seen on TV.
By the time I got to middle school, my immigrant family was able to afford a house with a yard of our own — back then, California really was the land of milk and honey — and I spent my youth in the sun-drenched suburbs. It was a fine place to grow up; in the mass-produced “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” that stretch across California and much of America, I found comfort, safety and a crucial sense of belonging in the American landscape.
And yet, wistful though I may remain for my suburban-sprawl childhood, these days I find myself continually amazed and befuddled by my state’s insane fetishization of an anachronistic model of urban development. Why — when the case for some better way of living has become so painfully obvious — can’t California quit propping up its endless rows of single-family houses? Why can’t so much of America? And what level of extreme unlivability is it going to take to finally convince us that there isn’t enough space for all of us to live as if space is infinite?
Last week, California lawmakers rejected an effort to override restrictive zoning regulations across the state for the third year in a row. Most of the land available for residential development in California is zoned for single-family homes, according to researchers at U.C. Berkeley’s Turner Center for Housing Innovation; the typical California city allows multifamily developments like apartments, townhouses and duplexes on less than a quarter of its land. Senate Bill 50, devised by Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, would have allowed higher-density housing near public transportation lines and job centers, fostering affordability and sustainability in a state that desperately needs both.
In previous attempts, Wiener’s idea was criticized for exacerbating gentrification and handing over development plans from local officials to state bureaucrats. This year, Wiener significantly amended the bill to address the critics’ concerns. The latest version offered greater control to local officials and delayed the legislation’s effect in low-income areas sensitive to gentrification.
But again, the bill couldn’t make it through. SB 50 attracted fierce opposition from lawmakers representing some of the state’s ritziest suburbs and its largest cities. Even some of the bill’s putative supporters, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is falling well short of his campaign promise to spur the development of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, offered only tepid endorsements.
I suspect that the reluctance stems from a reality that many politicians would prefer to avoid accepting: The reign of the single-family home is over. Whatever its habitable charms and nostalgic appeal, the single-family home is out of step with the future.
In an era constrained by sustainability and affordability, a big house with a backyard should be a rarity. Much of California is straining under its own success: We have too many people and too few places for them to live, offered at too-high prices, in too many areas touched-by-climate-change-related menaces, like wildfires, all too far from where people work. And the solution is so painfully obvious it feels almost reductive to point it out: Make it legal to build more housing that houses more people.
Increasing density by replacing single-family homes with multifamily ones would be a boon to our efforts to address climate change, and it would help with affordability. But if that is too practical a selling point, let me offer a couple more politically salient ones.
First, there is nothing especially admirable about the development of single-family zoning in America. Though the policy is now defended as a way to maintain the ineffable “local character” of neighborhoods, single-family zoning has a history in segregation. As historian Richard Rothstein has documented, single-family zoning was one of the many ways white homeowners and politicians kept African Americans out of suburbs.
And second: We can move on from single-family housing to something better for everyone. A few years ago, shut out of the skyrocketing market for single-family homes in our Northern California suburb, my wife and I bought a townhouse. At first we thought of it as a starter home — we’d just had our second child, and it felt like we could slum it in a townhouse for a bit before we could move into the dream of a place with a backyard.
That dream now looks prohibitive: Houses with backyards in my neck of the woods require tech-IPO levels of insane wealth. But you know what? I don’t feel so bad. Our attached townhouse, on a piece of land a small fraction of the size of a single-family home, is less of a burden on the environment, and it is just the right size for the four of us. It’s also just as loving and pleasant a place for my kids to grow up in as my own suburban manse was for me.
At some point, recently, I realized that I no longer fantasized about ever having a backyard — my dream home is now a townhouse, and if it’s good enough for me, perhaps it could be good enough for others in my state, too.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.