Opinion: Pass the California Home Act (SB 9) for more beautiful neighborhoods

“It’s time for California to legalize neighborhoods that work for all kinds of people throughout the state,” Travis Close and Venessa Boehm write.

We love our neighborhood. Nestled between the university campus and the Berkeley Hills, the Northside abounds with charm and character. It’s a place where the established and up-and-coming intermingle, where professors cross paths with students. 

The diversity of architecture in our neighborhood contributes to its eclectic feeling: duplexes, triplexes, apartment buildings, and single-family homes coexist among the well-watered lawns of religious institutions. Homes built before the rise of car culture, the markings of which would come to dominate the landscapes of U.S. cities all over. While we do not know every neighbor by name, a common understanding exists that we are stewards of a special, shared space that belongs to all who reside here.

A multifamily home (right) in the Northside neighborhood of Berkeley. Courtesy: Travis Close

This special space holds important lessons for all of California. Our state is undeniably in the midst of a housing crisis and has underbuilt housing for decades, but most residents don’t want to see skyscrapers on every street corner. Instead, an essential path forward for addressing this shortage can be found right here in the Northside. Senate Bill 9, which is currently working its way through our state legislature, would make charming neighborhoods like ours legal across the state. For places where only single-family homes are currently allowed, it would allow lots to be split into two with a duplex on each lot, effectively allowing fourplexes. It would not allow construction of more than four units on a lot. 

Originally subdivided by George Phelps in 1895, Northside was the first neighborhood developed north of Berkeley’s campus. In September of 1923, the neighborhood was completely destroyed by a large fire originating in Wildcat Canyon. Fueled by strong Northeasterly winds that we are all-too-familiar with today, the fire quickly spread across the hill and descended into the Berkeley development. More than 500 homes were lost.  


As the Northside was rebuilt, a more diverse and fire-resistant neighborhood rose from the ashes of what had burned. Stucco apartment buildings and multi-family residences replaced the brown shingled homes which stood before, as clay tile replaced split shake roofs blamed for worsening the fire. Greek fraternities and sororities were established as well as hotels, seminaries, and the picturesque Normandy Village.

While no single bill will solve the housing crisis, SB 9 will be a powerful tool for making our neighborhoods work for more people. It’s true that new duplexes and triplexes built in Berkeley may not be affordable for low-income families, which is why legislation aimed at increasing housing subsidies will also be necessary. But it cannot be denied that permitting more housing choices will bring a greater diversity of income levels to our neighborhoods. 

Fortunately, there are protections built into SB 9 to prevent harm to communities. Development cannot occur where a tenant had lived in the previous three years. The bill would not apply to hazardous or conservation areas, thus encouraging sustainable development. Individual buildings with more than two units, or more than four units on a single lot, are not authorized. Nor would it apply to rural or historical areas.

In fact, Berkeley recently passed a symbolic resolution to end single-family zoning, which will begin the process of allowing multifamily housing (but not apartments) in every Berkeley neighborhood. SB9 will not preempt these local zoning improvements, but rather only applies to other California communities where single-family zoning is still in effect.

A duplex standing behind trees in the Northside neighborhood of Berkeley. Courtesy: Travis Close

Today, while taking a stroll around Virginia or Arch Street south of Euclid, it’s clear that Northside is one of the most architecturally diverse neighborhoods in Berkeley. Numerous duplexes and triplexes, examples of Spanish colonial revival and Elizabethan wattle and daub, blend seamlessly with apartment buildings and single-family homes elsewhere on the block, while each building displays its own unique charm. The range of unit offerings naturally attracts a diverse crowd of inhabitants: university students, young families, seniors, and tenants of all ages. 

We love living in the Northside and believe it’s time for California to legalize neighborhoods that work for all kinds of people throughout the state. That’s why we believe in passing SB 9.

Travis Close and Vanessa Boehm are members of East Bay For Everyone.