Berkeley may eliminate single-family zoning in neighborhoods like this one on Hillegass Avenue in The Elmwood. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The future of Berkeley could be denser and less segregated, thanks to new proposals to scrap historically racist single-family zoning and legalize the widespread construction of fourplexes.

On Feb. 23, the City Council will vote on a resolution that could start a process to eliminate “exclusionary zoning” – typically viewed as the R1 or single-family-only zones that predominate in richer, whiter neighborhoods in North and Southeast Berkeley, by December 2022. Separately, the council and the mayor are considering allowing multiplexes in places zoned for single families, potentially opening the door for residents of more-diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

These actions would do something to help correct the arc of Berkeley’s ugly housing history. The city was the first in the nation to enact single-family zoning, in 1916, which had the effect of pushing nonwhite people to more crowded, impoverished neighborhoods in the south and west. Berkeley also used racist covenants to restrict who could live where  – Claremont’s inclusion of “pure Caucasian blood”-residents, for instance – and with redlining maps that praised exclusive neighborhoods like the Elmwood for their lack of “Negros” and “foreign-born” inhabitants. (These maps, which banks used to deny loans for residents of nonwhite neighborhoods, have to this day been linked to premature births and low-weight babies.)

“We saw these zoning practices originate because Berkeley didn’t want African-American dance halls or Chinese laundromats,” said Lori Droste, the District 8 council member sponsoring the new legislation. As a politician who represents Elmwood, she said, “I felt particularly morally compelled to address this issue.”

Berkeley joins a wave of cities that are dismantling their single-family zoning and propagating cheaper housing options. Last year, Portland legalized fourplexes in nearly every residential corner of the city – or even sixplexes, if they include affordable housing. Minneapolis passed its own law tripling housing capacity in single-family neighborhoods and, in January, Sacramento proposed spreading fourplexes everywhere for reasons (according to the mayor) of “inclusion and equity.”

Since then, there’s been a flurry of interest in the government halls of other California municipalities, including San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego. “It’s almost like a bit of an arms race to see which cities can loosen single-family-zoning restrictions first,” said David Garcia, policy director for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Garcia believes there are both moral and practical reasons for the movement’s popularity. “Coupled with the relatively recent recognition of the fraught history of single-family zoning,” he said, “I think a lot of city leaders are understanding that reforming their zoning codes to allow for more housing opportunities is a way to reckon with the exclusionary and racist nature of some of these single-family zoning policies they’ve had for decades.”

There’s also the consideration that in California, due to 2018’s Senate Bill 828, cities are required by state law to zone for significantly higher amounts of new housing. “A lot of city-planning departments are looking into single-family-zoning areas to help meet those goals,” said Garcia. “In a lot of cases, that’s because that’s really the only place they have left to tap for new housing development.”

“Residents of the Bay Area are going to be gobsmacked when they see the new [Regional Housing Needs Allocation] numbers because of SB828,” said Droste. “Berkeley has to zone for 9,000 units – a huge increase – in about two years, and anyone who thinks our zoning will remain the same is sorely mistaken.”

Residential zoning in Berkeley. Info: Othering & Belonging Institute

Reclassifying single-family zones to include multiplexes could affect vast chunks of real estate. In the Bay Area, roughly 85 percent of residential neighborhoods (49 percent in Berkeley) are zoned single-family-only, according to UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. “That’s ridiculous,” said Stephen Menendian, the institute’s assistant director and director of research. “The fact that only 15 percent of residential areas permit by zoning ordinance denser housing options, in a region that is the economic vanguard of the country, is totally inadequate to the needs of the region and frankly the country.”

It’s also not doing favors for many folks who are, well, not Caucasian. Menendian’s research has revealed a powerful relationship between living in single-family neighborhoods and racial imbalance. “We found that as you increase single-family-homes zoning, the demographics of the population shift whiter and whiter,” he said. “As you get above 90 percent of single-family-homes areas [in a city], the percentage of the population that’s black or Hispanic goes practically to zero.”

Not everyone’s happy about the specter of fourplexes popping up in their block. “Such a policy would negatively impact the city’s and our neighborhoods’ quality of life in traffic, parking, and the availability of services,” Jan Stafford, a Berkeley resident, wrote in a letter to Berkeleyside. “Adding to the general population size [it] will increase the need for services for all when the city can’t afford to service its existing population (i.e., parking, street repair, homelessness, permit-office understaffing, and more).”

The Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, formed to “assist in protecting and improving the livability of our neighborhoods,” sent a letter to city council members on Feb. 10 asking that they reject the rezoning proposal put forward by Droste and co-sponsored by Rigel Robinson, Ben Bartlett, Terry Taplin. The BNC letter was signed by former Mayor Shirley Dean, Dean Metzger, Janis Battles, Willie Phillips, Meryl Siegal, David Ushijima, and James Peterson.

The Berkeley Tenants Union is urging its member to oppose any moves to allow fourplexes to be built throughout Berkeley unless affordability is guaranteed. In an email, the organization expressed concern that there would not be a requirement that fourplexes contain any affordable units. The BTU wants at least one unit to be permanently affordable for low-income residents.

“Their proposal would result in the demolition of rent-controlled duplexes and triplexes and other affordable housing, replaced with unaffordable market-rate housing,” the BTU said in an email blast. “No to upzoning without affordability!  No to further gentrification!”

Droste pushed back against that argument noting that rent-control demolition is illegal under State Bill 330. But the BTU gave another push, saying the law only “creates (loophole-ridden) restrictions on the demolition of rent-controlled housing.”

green multifamily home
Multifamily residence at Ellsworth and Russell streets in South Berkeley, Feb. 12, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

Daniella Thompson, who lives in North Berkeley, is concerned there’s not enough specificity in the city leaders’ proposals. “I don’t know how far they will take it, if they will stop with quadruplexes,” she said. “As an architectural historian, I am concerned this will just open the door to the mass demolition of single-family homes and replace them with faceless apartment buildings, which is exactly what happened in the 1950s and ’60s which led to the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance.” (That ordinance banned new apartment construction for decades.)

“I have nothing against more density and more housing,” Thompson said. “I am concerned about the character of the new housing, and whether it will be of quality, whether it will be affordable, and whether it will be compatible with the historic character of Berkeley. I mean, do they care about those things? I don’t think so.”

Look around, however, and you’ll notice that – despite the reigning zoning – multiplexes are already in Berkeley’s exclusive ‘hoods. “When you walk down my street it looks like there is a lot of single-family houses. But the reality is virtually every house on the block on both sides, with the exception of two or three, is cut up into multiple units,” said Vincent Casalaina, a residential landlord in Elmwood.

COVID-19 has dealt a drubbing to the local rental market. But Casalaina expects demand to return, as it historically has done after market catastrophes like the dot-com bubble bust.

“My sense is that Berkeley needs as much new housing as it possibly can get,” he said. “And as much as I personally would not like to see them tear down perfectly reasonably, nice single-family houses to put up fourplexes, that is in fact probably what Berkeley needs to do.”

Update: This article was updated after publication to add more information on the Berkeley Tenants Union stance on the proposal and Droste’s reaction to its assertions. 

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John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...