Lori Droste, Berkeley City Council, Dec. 11, 2018. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Update, Feb. 27: After public comment and brief comments from council, officials voted late Tuesday night to postpone this item to March 26 due to time constraints.

Original story, Feb. 26: Several council members have asked the city to consider letting Berkeley property owners add a unit, or several, to single-family lots to help address the regional housing crisis and displacement and correct historically exclusionary zoning practices.

Officials will consider the referral, from City Council members Lori Droste, Ben Bartlett, Rigel Robinson and Rashi Kesarwani, on Tuesday night. The group has asked the city for a report on “missing middle” housing that could eventually lead to zoning reform in Berkeley. Any changes to the zoning code would come back at a later date.

The meaning of the term “missing middle” is twofold, Droste said Monday, and refers to both broader density standards that would allow more unit types, such as duplexes, courtyard apartments and townhouses, on single-family lots; as well as more affordable housing options for people in the middle-income bracket — those who earn 80% to 120% of the area median income — who are struggling to live in Berkeley as rents and home prices rise.

Berkeley-based Opticos Design coined the term “missing middle housing” in 2010, according to its website.

The new report would consider “optimal” locations in the city for “missing middle” housing; the possibility of up to four units on a single-family lot; and the idea of form-based zoning, “which addresses the appropriate form, scale and massing of buildings as they relate to one another.” It would also look at incentives for maintaining family-friendly housing “while adding more diversity and range of smaller units,” and protections for low-income homeowners and tenants, among other provisions.

Neighborhoods “in areas with access to essential components of livability like parks, schools, employment, transit, and other services” are of particular interest, according to the council referral.

Droste said Monday that the effort will allow Berkeley to have more say over requirements to increase housing production slated to come from the state in the next year.

“We’re going to have to do this anyway,” she said. “For people who really advocate for local control, this is a way we can do this locally.”

Droste said the goal of the referral is to allow single-family homeowners a small increase in existing density standards so they might create something like a duplex, where their grown children or other residents could also live, in neighborhoods where it’s not currently allowed. That includes the city’s R1 zoning districts.

“It’s a much more subtle way of reaching our regional housing needs,” Droste said.

The approach is being promoted in places like Seattle and Minneapolis, according to proponents.

“Missing middle housing includes duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, and multiplexes that often house people with a variety of incomes. These housing types generally have small- to medium-sized footprints and are often three stories or less, allowing them to blend into the existing neighborhood while still encouraging greater socioeconomic diversity. These types of homes exist in every district of Berkeley, having been built before they were banned in districts only allowing single family homes. Missing middle homes were severely limited in other districts by zoning changes initiated in 1973,” according to the council report.

“Onerous lot coverage ratios and excessive setback and parking requirements” have also posed obstacles for “missing middle” housing, according to the council report, and it’s been difficult for property owners and developers to secure funding for it.

Any zoning reforms would need to take into account neighborhood character and aesthetics, Droste said.

Zoning reform as “transformative justice”

The proposal will also provide Berkeley an opportunity to address some of the “vestiges of an exclusionary past,” Droste said. The city’s zoning code is based on racial covenants that created a “wall of segregation” that still impacts the city.

“If we’re a progressive city, we have to at least talk about it,” she said.

In a letter to officials in support of the proposal, UC Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple — a nationally recognized expert on displacement — pointed out that “Zoning reform has the potential not just to address the housing crisis but also to become a form of restorative or even transformative justice. There is no more important issue for planners to tackle today.”

Zoning code changes along these lines could help the city retain its diversity, supporters say.

According to the council item, “Approximately half of Berkeley’s housing stock consists of single family units and more than half of Berkeley’s residential land is zoned in ways that preclude most missing middle housing. As a result, today, only wealthy households can afford homes in Berkeley.”

The current median price of a single-family home in Berkeley is $1.2 million, according to the council item. A Bay Area family must earn $200,000 annually to afford a median-priced home in the region. That’s after the 20% downpayment.

That means many municipal employees can’t afford to live in town: “a community health worker (making $63,600) and a janitor (making $58,300) wouldn’t be able to afford a home. Neither would a fire captain (making $142,000) with a stay at home spouse. Even a police officer (making $122,600) and a groundskeeper (making $69,300), or two librarians (making $71,700) couldn’t buy a house,” according to the report.

And rent for a two-bedroom Berkeley apartment costs about $3,200 a month. Meanwhile, median child care costs in Alameda County tally more than $1,800 a month, which is an increase of 36% in the past four years. That puts annual living and child care costs at more than $60,000 for many families, officials wrote.

Several dozen people wrote to officials to urge support of the council item. They included a number of UC Berkeley students, other local residents and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Schaaf wrote that the report “would provide valuable information not only to Berkeley but to Oakland and other cities grappling with the challenges associated with providing new housing in existing neighborhoods.” She also emphasized that “missing middle” housing near transit would play an important role in addressing the climate crisis.

Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg was also among those who wrote in support of the referral.

In his letter, he said he and his wife converted a duplex in the Elmwood into a single-family home to make room for their growing family about a decade ago. Now that their kids have grown, he wrote, they’d like to change it back. But city code doesn’t allow it.

“That makes no sense,” he wrote. “Being able to convert a single family [home] into a duplex or triplex is the lowest of low hanging fruit as such conversions will have virtually zero impact with respect to the usual hot-button issues of massing, shading, views, etc.”

He said parking would likely still come up as a concern, but that it shouldn’t stop the city from moving ahead, particularly with the requested report.

“This should not be a heavy lift for the city,” he wrote. “This tweak to the Zoning Ordinance could well end up providing far more dwelling units than might be provided by far more cumbersome and expensive ADU construction.”

None of the letters submitted to the city that had been published by Monday night appeared to object to the referral.

Note: Berkeley-based Opticos Design coined the term “missing middle housing” in 2010, according to its website. Berkeleyside updated the story to add this reference after publication.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...