June 17, 2020 Housing Action Coalition

A Brief History of Institutional Racism in San Francisco’s Land Use Choices—and the Impacts that Remain Today


By Todd David and Stevon Cook. Mr. David is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, and Mr. Cook is a Commissioner at the San Francisco Unified School District. This article was adapted from research by the 2020 HAC Intern Cohort.


The events of recent weeks have forced a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have acutely and horrifically revealed the brutal treatment inflicted on Black Americans by the police, and remarkably, the outrage of this injustice has broken through, challenging us all to interrogate the institutions that have perpetuated and exacerbated institutional racism.

We need not look far to find one of the most pervasive and damaging instances of systemic racism right here in San Francisco. In fact, we experience them every time we walk through the Fillmore and Sunset Districts. As with the history of so much policy, the story of land use in San Francisco is rife with purposeful, government sanctioned segregation, some of it obvious, some more subtle. 

Racist Zoning, Single-Family Zoning, and Racist Covenants

To this day, exclusionary zoning remains the most comprehensive, and systemically entrenched method of segregating the Bay Area. While the Supreme Court was in the process of declaring explicitly racial zoning unconstitutional in 1917 in Buchanan v. Warley, Berkeley pioneered the now ubiquitous single-family zoning in 1915 in the Elmwood district to prevent construction of more affordable multi-unit apartment buildings in the most desirable – and majority white – neighborhoods. [1] Since many Black residents could not afford larger single-family homes, single-family zoning effectively shut out African-Americans from these desirable neighborhoods. These zoning practices enforced racial hierarchies but disguised them behind arguments of maintaining property values, community character and the “quality of manhood and womanhood” in American family life. [2] Soon after the Buchanan v. Warley decision, other municipalities, including San Francisco, replicated Berkeley’s single-family zoning model, recognizing it as a clever way to legally maintain segregation. [3]

Single-family zoning was by no means the sole weapon enlisted to keep neighborhoods segregated. Dating back to the late 19th and mid 20th century, real estate developers and property owners wrote explicitly racist “restrictive covenants” that prevented African-Americans from buying — or even viewing — homes in white neighborhoods. This practice continued well into the late 20th century, even after the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unenforceable in the landmark 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer. [4] In spite of efforts to curb the perpetuation of racist housing patterns, strategies to organize communities by race only become less obvious, yet arguably more devious. 

 In 1957 when recently-arrived San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays sought to buy a house at 175 Miraloma Drive, pressure from neighbors pushed the seller to refuse Mays’ offer. Though his celebrity status moved SF Mayor George Christopher to intervene and permit his purchase, other people of color seeking to buy homes in white neighborhoods were not afforded the same privilege. [5] Instead, Black home buyers were pushed into less desirable racially segregated neighborhoods we still see today.

Urban Renewal, the Fillmore and the Downzoning of the West Side

While the current affordability crisis continues to displace Black and Latinx San Franciscians, Communities of color have been systematically excluded from the city’s neighborhoods since San Francisco first set out to organize its diverse residents. During the forties, San Francisco’s African-American community grew tenfold, reaching an apex of 43,500 at the end of the decade. The post-World War II “Urban Renewal” program devastated San Francisco’s Black community, leaving residents with little recourse and limited housing alternatives.

At the center of this discussion stood the Fillmore District, generally defined as the historical neighborhood north of the Mission District, southwest of Nob Hill, and west of Market Street. The Fillmore district, at one time known as the Harlem of the West, is known for historically being one of the most diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco and was particularly known for its jazz scene.

At a 1948 public hearing, State Senator Gerald O’Gara, using thinly disguised racialized verbage, deemed San Francisco’s predominantly Black Fillmore district as “blighted.” Without explicitly referring to the racial makeup of the neighborhood, O’Gara implied that the neighborhood’s influx of Black residents were at fault for recent descent into disrepair (deindustrialization, increased poverty, pollution, and lower standards of living). The phrase “blighted” took on a new meaning in the coming years, and was often used to justify the removal of Black and other minority residents in neighborhoods. The subsequent “renewal” efforts on communities like the Fillmore not only ignored the vibrancy and cultural value of these neighborhoods, but also failed to address the root causes of deterioration.

While home ownership served as the ultimate wealth builder for generations of white Americans, most Black San Franciscans were not able to purchase their own homes. In addition to exclusionary land-use policies, the notorious practices of redlining and mortgage discrimination from the Federal Housing Administration prevented many qualified applicants from buying houses. With so few housing options available, Black tenants crowded into buildings owned by white residents who had left for suburbs, often resulting in inattentive landlords. Those who were financially capable of purchasing homes often saw their wealth destroyed by their home purchases. Black home buyers were met with real-estate agents emboldened by a lack of housing options, offering inflated housing contracts with strict eviction provisions in place of standard mortgages. In an attempt to meet the terms of predatory lending instruments, Black families were forced to work multiple jobs to pay the highly priced contracts, leaving little time for home maintenance. Coupled with  an intentional lack of investment by the city on neighborhood services, the once-vibrant blocks of the Fillmore fell into disrepair. 

Instead of desegregating neighborhoods, addressing low-density zoning on the West Side of the city, or preventing discriminatory real-estate practices, San Francisco decided to embrace and expand exclusionary single-family zoning in white neighborhoods. In 1944, despite a looming housing shortage as GIs began to return to home, San Francisco rezoned the heavily-white Sunset district from “Residential High-Density 2” to “Residential High Density-1.” This small shift in technical regulation effectively constrained where the city could build more housing, and helped cement the city’s segregated neighborhoods. In the face of a looming housing shortage, the downzoning of white neighborhoods coupled with the decision to bulldoze the Fillmore displaced thousands of Black San Franciscans. According to Walter Thompson, San Francisco City Attorneys on at least two occasions prevented the Board of Supervisors from “set[ting] aside new housing for displaced residents, or (to) prevent racial discrimination within redevelopment zones.”

The legacy of these zoning laws and the explicitly racist foundations upon which they were built persist today, and continue to prevent any significant racial desegregation in the Bay Area. 

The Long Shadow of Exclusionary Zoning on Today’s Public Schools

San Francisco’s racist approach toward housing displays clearly in our schools. Reading the early minutes from the San Francisco Board of Education is jarring– you’ll notice justification of segregated schools and teacher payroll records in which educators received lower salaries for working with “colored” children. This ongoing disinvestment in Black children coupled with racist hiring policies in corporate America and local governments systematically suppressed the Black family. The legacy of these policies are hard at work even today in San Francisco. The average white household earns $104k a year compared to the average Black household income at $29k per year. San Francisco schools today are more segregated than ever, and they exhibit the widest achievement gap in California. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have examples of schools like John Muir Elementary in San Francisco’s Western Addition with Black and Latinx students outperforming the district average on state testing in math and English. We have organizations like San Francisco Achievers giving college scholarships to Black males graduating from our public schools. But we know that great schools and programs are not enough. At the district level, we have to answer for over 40 years of policy initiatives to address the achievement gap that hasn’t resulted in any significant changes. We talk the talk of social justice and equity in San Francisco, but when you examine student outcomes, San Francisco has failed its Black students. 

That said, we understand the test scores are but a symptom of family affluence rather than a true indication of teacher quality. The historic systemic suppression of the Black community is directly responsible for this state of affairs. Research about stress factors, popularized by Dr. Nadine Burke, further illuminates how community health and education outcomes have become cyclical. The Black community is entitled to a complete overhaul of the system, complemented with a pathway for economic independence for Black families, if we are ever going to see progress in student outcomes. 

 Land Use Decisions Must Change and Reparations Must Be Made

 So much of today’s implicit and subtle biases have roots in the land use decisions made in the 20th century. And these policies, specifically exclusionary zoning, continue to keep communities across the Bay Area divided. We must imagine racially and economically diverse neighborhoods as a tool to build strong, inclusive communities. In order for the US to reach its fullest potential, we need to snuff out the concept of the “other human”. Progress on this issue needs to be made on many fronts in society. We need to keep front of mind that land use decisions played a role and continue to play a role in justifying institutional views of “us” and “them.”

Supporting zoning changes that allow multi-family housing in traditionally white and affluent neighborhoods is an important step we all can take to reverse the history of land use keeping African-Americans out of these neighborhoods. Recognizing complaints of “neighborhood character” as a potentially racist dog whistle and pointing out that this was the exact arguments used to justify the original and overtly racist single-family zoning ordinance in Berkeley.

We also must address head on the harm systemic racism in zoning and housing practices have caused African Americans. Reparations from financial institutions that refused to provide mortgages in red-lined neighborhoods coupled with a transfer tax on real estate from those who have benefited from this unequal system must be implemented without delay.

Mr. George Floyd was murdered by the police over $20. Law enforcement charged the home and killed EMT worker Ms. Breonna Taylor for no reason. The international outcry and radical rejection of these painful incidents has created a resounding message of “enough” in regards to the status quo related to how we police, educate and accomplish land use in our country. Collectively, we are done with the way things have gone and must rework ourselves to the country Black people deserve. We are talking about hard working, devoted, creative and generous American citizens that have laid the foundation for the country we now enjoy and persistently offered innovations in the way that we live our lives. This is our moment to accomplish the inclusive vision for collective success that we’ve always said we wanted, but never had the courage to become.


  1. Eli Moore, Nicole Montojo, and Nicole Mauri, “Roots, Race, and Place: A History of Racially Exclusionary Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, October 2019, pp. 31.
  2.  Miller v. Board of Public Works, 195 Cal. 477 (Cal. 1925)
  3.  “Roots, Race, and Place,” pp. 32.
  4. “Roots, Race, and Place,” pp. 35.
  5.  San Francisco Planning Department et al., “African American Citywide Historic Context Statement,” January 2016, pp. 103.

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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