The Bay Area housing crisis is getting worse so quickly, we barely have time to react. Locally, Berkeley rents are up over 30% year over year, and the median home price is now over $1 million. A recent analysis said that to comfortably cover your housing costs in Berkeley requires an annual income of $119,014. And on campus things are getting desperate for students, and increasingly faculty and staff too.
Throughout the Bay Area low-income families are getting crushed, and subsidized housing programs are being overwhelmed by need. Working families are facing increasingly brutal commutes from the Central Valley, or in extreme cases living in garages. Things have gotten so bad that even the people who work at the nonprofits that help house low-income families can’t afford to stay.
Now for the really bad news. This is our fault. For decades, you and I have made it illegal to build the housing that our community needs.
Zoning laws feel like the air we breathe – invisible, ubiquitous, almost a natural part of our environment. With the country’s first comprehensive zoning law turning 100 years old next year, it’s a good time to reflect on what are arguably the most powerful laws we control at the local level.
The zoning movement in the US was driven heavily by communities trying to protect property values and exclude minorities and immigrants, in the face of rapid urbanization. ”The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities” documents how zoning created the legal framework for segregation. Many early zoning laws were explicitly racist, including in California where early zoning laws directly targeted Chinese laundries.
The zoning movement has succeeded as planned. Researchers have found overwhelming evidence that the stricter a region’s zoning laws, the more segregated it is likely to be. This largely flows from rules that favor single-family homes and restrict the development of lower-cost, high density housing.
The data on restrictive zoning and cost is equally unambiguous in showing that zoning and other land use controls are heavily responsible for high housing prices. This should not surprise anyone familiar with the fundamental principles of economics – restricting supply of something makes prices go up.
But the politics are tricky, particularly in places like Berkeley – we are used to thinking that anyone arguing that we have “too much regulation” just wants to advance an agenda that goes against the interests of low-income working people. But with zoning we’re talking about regulations that significantly increase inequality, since restricting the supply of housing transfers wealth from renters to owners.
Now for the good news. Leading liberal voices like Paul Krugman are starting to speak out and helping people understand that zoning liberalization is, well, liberal. And because zoning laws are local, we have tremendous power in our own community to make a huge difference. We can loosen zoning restrictions in a way that is consistent with our values, and in the process serve as a model for the rest of the Bay Area. In our uniquely messy Berkeley way we are starting to figure this out. The recent approval of 2211 Harold Way, which will create over 300 units of badly needed, transit-oriented housing, plus funding to support an additional 100 units of subsidized housing for low-income renters, is a triumph of progressive zoning reform, and our friends in Oakland are taking note.
We have the opportunity to get these wins throughout the City if we collectively make it a priority and build on the downtown model – upzoning for high density housing near public transportation with strong affordable housing requirements. In the meantime, we are all complicit in a housing crisis driven heavily by our zoning laws, that our City representatives create and enforce on our behalf every day. Which means we are all complicit in the increasing suffering our housing crisis is causing. As the famous Howard Zinn quote goes, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
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