The Berkeley City Council will soon consider eliminating single-family zoning and legalize the construction of two, three and four homes per lot city-wide, as is common in residential South and West Berkeley. In many parts of Berkeley, including Northbrae, Thousand Oaks, the Hills, Claremont and two western tracts, single-family zoning dominates 49% of the city. To end the racist origins of Berkeley’s zoning and allow enough construction to lessen the housing crisis, single-family zoning must end.

The history

Single-family zoning was first invented in Berkeley, California (page 18) to stop a “Negro dance hall” in Elmwood, and later codified widely into law by Ducan McDuffie, the developer of Claremont and Northbrae, for the purposes of prohibiting tenants, Blacks and Asians. It is a sad stain on Berkeley’s otherwise proud history that became the nationwide tool of choice as a complement to lending discrimination and redlining. It has long been a scourge of fair housing, according to a study done by the Othering and Belonging institute at UC Berkeley: “It shows some fluctuation but overall as the proportion of single-family zoning increases, so does its white population, while the Black and Latinx populations decrease,” the study says. Cities committed to racial justice like Minneapolis abolished their single-family zoning, and the Obama administration’s fair housing rules encouraged cities to eliminate single-family zoning to stop segregation. Donald Trump very loudly ran in support of single-family zoning to “protect the suburbs.”

You can see how preventing multifamily housing during Berkeley’s peak influx of Black residents preserved white neighborhoods, by resisting people of color (top number) and Black residents (bottom number) in the picture below. People of color seeped into formerly white parts of north Berkeley and Westbrae due to prevalence of multifamily housing. This map closely aligns with Berkeley’s zoning map today of single-family areas.

Now, Berkeleyans are not racist, as I a Black man who has lived here all my life can attest. But systemic racism doesn’t require racists to operate, just allowed to perpetuate. Every day I walk around the Berkeley Hills with Black Lives Matter and Refugees Welcome signs, in neighborhoods with very few Black and brown people. And the few that do live here with me in North Berkeley, anecdotally, do live in old, multifamily housing. Even Vice-President Kamala Harris grew up in a West Berkeley duplex and was bused up to a neighborhood where that kind of housing and people were not allowed.


Will it be affordable? The gentrification crisis is fundamentally about a lack of housing. Berkeley’s housing shortage dates back to the 1970s and has gotten drastically worse since the 1990s as the region’s population has grown. The Black population started declining in Berkeley not in 2010 at the start of the tech boom, but 1980. Not building housing in Berkeley makes housing unaffordable and pushes carbon-intensive suburban sprawl, this is an indisputable fact that not a single-shred of research points to the contrary. Sadly, California ranks 49th out of 50th in homes per person, and ranks #1 in renters in overcrowded homes, fueling coronavirus spread, NOT density.

But let’s consult the Census. Just a month ago, it released its latest data from the American Community Survey (ACS) that shows homes by type over a half-decade survey period (below). The rows list homes by density, and the columns list homes by year they were built in Berkeley and Albany. The tables show the median household incomes who inhabit these homes:

We can see that no matter what year they’re built, single-family homes, for which the city mandates as the sole type of housing in 49% of the city, are inhabited by six-figure households with a median income nearing $200,000. However, even new development of duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, have a lower household income of $43,674. And, obviously, 18-24-year-old college students probably skew Berkeley’s data, so the census helpfully also has a regional scale.

By examining the Oakland metro area, thus minimizing the weight of students, we see a very similar trend. Newly built duplexes to fourplexes are inhabited by relatively lower income households, i.e. tenants. However, single-family homes built any year, and new 50+ unit buildings, are housing higher-income households.

Neighborhood character

Allowing up to four homes on lots citywide would help out current residents. Berkeley is full of seniors who cannot navigate their large homes. Many would love to downsize and still live in their communities, but can’t, because of the lack of nearby rental housing. Many parents realize they don’t need all their house space as their children move away, and would love to subdivide their home for rental income. Also very common — people move in with family members and in-laws and want to have additional units on-site for their multigenerational household.

My mother built an additional unit as she moved in with my grandmother in a place in central Berkeley. My grandfather’s house in North Oakland was a Victorian single-family home. It was lifted up to install a second floor years later to add family tenants on the ground floor. Why should this be prohibited in any neighborhood?

Fourplex zoning should warrant wide support among Berkeley neighbors, particularly those opposed to highrises. Berkeley is already covered with beautiful, architecturally masterful two, three and four-home buildings. You can’t even tell the difference between a multifamily home and a single-family homeless unless your eyes saw the added doors and mailboxes. It’s the bare minimum.

Berkeley can send a nationwide statement that these racist anti-tenant laws, which spread nationwide, will be rebuked by the city that invented them. Berkeley can also meet its housing goals mandated by the state in the next eight years by allowing the construction of contextual, low-density housing instead of highrises.

Three things should be coupled with it: a citywide survey to scope out any un-landmarked houses of historical or architectural significance. Second, an incentive to streamline or advantage the permits of builders who add density to existing homes rather than resorting to teardowns. And, lastly, building standards in the fire zone that can combat and mitigate wildfire. Allowing up to four homes won’t single-handedly solve the housing crisis nor end housing discrimination, but it is one of many evidence-based policies to combat unaffordability and displacement.

I encourage my North Berkeley neighbors to support the changes.

Darrell Owens is the co-executive director of East Bay for Everyone, a data and policy analyst at California YIMBY and a fourth-generation resident of Berkeley.
Darrell Owens is the co-executive director of East Bay for Everyone, a data and policy analyst at California YIMBY and a fourth-generation resident of Berkeley.