Berkeley denounces racist history of single-family zoning, begins 2-year process to change general plan

Council unanimously approved a resolution that will work toward banning single-family zoning.

03/01/2021 Berkeley Residential (Stock
Photo: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley City Council unanimously denounced the racist history of single-family zoning in the city on Tuesday night, beginning a two-year process to change the city’s general plan and introduce more multi-unit housing in every part of the city.

As council members emphasized repeatedly during the late-night meeting — the approved Resolution to End Exclusionary Zoning in Berkeley is just a document of intent, meaning it’s largely symbolic and doesn’t immediately change any city zoning rules. That’s a much longer, involved process that requires multiple handoffs between the Planning Commission and the City Council, and is slated to be completed by the end of 2022.

“It’s certainly not going to happen overnight, and I don’t think I’ve indicated otherwise,” Councilmember Lori Droste said of the lengthy general plan change process, and concrete steps to remove exclusionary housing policies in the city. “But [the resolution] is symbolic in stating that we want to address systemic racism. We can’t address racial and economic segregation unless we address zoning reform, that’s definitely true.”

When Droste originally introduced the resolution in early February, the symbolic document was paired with a plan to begin the zoning change process and build more quadplexes in Berkeley. Those two parts were separated before Tuesday’s vote and the zoning change (authored by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Droste, Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin)  was sent to the land use, housing and economic development committee on Feb. 18.

The issue will return to that committee on Monday and the City Council will begin discussion later in March, Droste told Berkeleyside.

Berkeley’s racist zoning legacy doesn’t mean its residents are racist, council members emphasize

Arreguín, Droste, Councilmember Sophie Hahn, public speakers and others took pains throughout the night to stress that simply living in a single-family home doesn’t make the resident racist, and even appreciating single-family zoning doesn’t betray racism.

The assurances were in response to explosive local discussions prompted by Droste’s original resolution. Berkeleyside’s story about the shift away from exclusionary housing received 347 comments, and numerous local organizations weighed in on the resolution — with many like the Sierra Club and East Bay for Everyone in support.

Strong negative reactions had mostly died down by Tuesday night’s meeting, and while there were a handful of speakers who did not support the resolution, most were in favor with undoing single-family housing and increasing affordable housing stock locally.

Droste and co-authors pointed out in the resolution that Berkeley was the first city in the United States to enact single-family zoning in 1916 in Droste’s district, the Elmwood. This combined with discriminatory lending practices, redlining and the Berkeley Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 1973 to create deeply segregated neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance was intended to protect neighborhood character but severely reduced multi-family dwelling units being built in Berkeley between 1970 and 2000, according to the resolution. Ultimately, most neighborhoods with single-family zoning in North and Southeast Berkeley became some of the most expensive parts of the city, while not enough housing was built in the city overall. 

This exacerbated and led to the displacement of Black and Asian Berkeleyans throughout the last century, as well as low-income residents.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to look at the way systemic racism is embedded into our daily lives — this fear of having to give up something,” Droste said of living in a single-family zone, or in a wealthy neighborhood. “Ultimately what we’re saying is we want different parts of Berkeley just to be treated the same.”

She added that multi-unit duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes are often beautiful buildings, and already part of many of the communities that may worry about their changing neighborhoods.

Redlining and racist covenants in housing policies (like those that expressly prohibited Black residents and Asian residents) are also racist, but mostly extinct, and single-family zoning is one of the last vestiges of these policies, Droste said.

She attributed “fear-mongering” to former President Donald Trump, who said liberals wanted to “abolish single-family zoning in California” and therefore “destroy the suburbs.” State politicians pushing for an end to single-family zoning in California and other states have rebuked his characterization, and similar moves to change zoning laws have already happened in Minneapolis and Oregon,

How will single-family zoning end in Berkeley?

a redlining map of Berkeley that shows areas where people weren't granted bank loans to buy homes
A famous Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining map of Berkeley and Oakland that shows where Black and Asian residents weren’t given loans to buy homes. The practices that allowed this type of redlining have mostly been done away with, resolution author Councilmember Lori Droste said, but single-family zoning is one vestige of several exclusionary housing practices of the past.

Due to the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation from Senate Bill 828, Berkeley is already required to build 9,000 more units in the next several years. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and others have said zoning changes are one of the only ways to accomplish this quantity, and that the choice to do away with single-family zoning was practically decided for them.

The intent resolution passed on Tuesday doesn’t have the language to remove R-1 (or single-family zoning), but rather to “no longer ban multi-family housing” in all parts of the city. It also says “zoning reform does not ban single-family homes but allows for a greater mix of home types and income  levels in more Berkeley neighborhoods.”

This language is not explicit, but an end to single-family zoning could come to fruition in multiple ways.

There could be subdivisions in existing single-family homes, new construction and, indeed, demolitions and reconstructions. While some public speakers and community members have amplified the possibility of demolitions and further displacement, the resolution clearly states that this is not a favored approach to increase affordable housing stock.

Councilmember co-authors Taplin, Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson and Ben Bartlett have drilled down that this is not their intent, and council members including Sophie Hahn have shared information on “missing middle housing,” and other options to increase access and affordability. The Council had requested a study on the missing middle concept last year, but funding dried up due to the pandemic and Droste instead introduced Tuesday’s resolution.

Much of the conversation Tuesday focused on single-family zoning in wealthy Berkeley neighborhoods, but there’s also single-family zoning in South Berkeley areas like San Pablo Park. Some public commenters and Councilmember Kate Harrison said ending this zoning in predominantly Black areas of the city could potentially further gentrification by allowing homes to be replaced with market-rate apartments.

Southwest Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin is currently a tenant in a single-family home where he takes care of his mother and pushed back strongly on this idea. He said single-family zoning does not stop gentrification, and doing nothing accomplishes even less.

“I don’t understand why we need people of Central Berkeley to decide how to enact housing justice in West Berkeley,” he told Berkeleyside. “[The co-authors] are actually people of color who are in direct communication with our community, and we don’t need housing justice [sic] prescribed to us by people who are not part of our community.”

“We’re really a few decades late on this,” he added. “I’m glad people have realized and woken up to the fact that our Black population is almost gone, but we can’t separate that from the policies that got us here in the first place.”

Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose district is in high-fire risk areas of the Berkeley Hills, emphasized an interest in public safety when going down the path of potential upzoning, or creating taller or denser buildings and allowing more people to live in certain areas. The resolution includes multiple mentions of public safety, climate change and fire risk in considerations over the next several years.

Right before the unanimous vote, Bartlett capped off the discussion saying the change wouldn’t immediately lead to a boom in housing or solve all the problems of the past, but the resolution has immeasurable “existential” benefits.

We cannot ignore that from the onset, zoning’s sole purpose was to segregate by race, to the detriment of people of color. They even called it Race Zoning! And it succeeded!” he said. 

It is important to note: not only are we the birthplace of race zoning, but we are also the birthplace of the Fair Housing Act authored by Berkeley’s own Byron Rumford, which became the Federal Fair Housing Act— a seminal piece of legislation guaranteeing equal access to housing,” he added. “As such, we have a dual responsibility to address this long-standing and entrenched iniquity.”

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.