A decade from now, Berkeley could look very different.

New high-rise apartment complexes sprouting from downtown and the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley could be reshaping the city’s skyline. More new housing could replace the low-slung storefronts and parking lots that now line major streets such as University and San Pablo avenues. And neighborhoods long dominated by single-family homes could be welcoming everything from duplexes to three- and four-story apartment buildings.

That is the vision many local leaders are pushing for Berkeley to embrace as the city embarks on a key effort to plan for the future: updating the Housing Element of the General Plan.

The update will play a central role in deciding how Berkeley grows between 2023 and 2031, eight years in which regional mandates require the city to plan for the construction of nearly 9,000 new units of housing. Between 2020 and 2040, projections show Berkeley’s population will grow by more than 13,000 new residents. The ambitious targets for new housing construction set the stage for contentious discussions over where, how and what kind of new homes get built.

City officials are encouraging the public to play an active role in shaping the Housing Element — a process that began earlier this year and will continue through January 2023. But they also acknowledge the conversation can seem daunting or abstract if you aren’t steeped in the world of housing policy.

“It’s a really important but often overlooked process,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an interview. “It is going to have a transformative impact in Berkeley.”

That’s why Berkeleyside created this guide to better understanding the Housing Element, what is at stake in the process and how you can get involved. Click on the links below to navigate to a specific question:

Downtown Berkeley construction as seen on October 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
A crane lifts materials over Addison Street on Oct. 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

What is a Housing Element?

California requires all of its cities to update their housing plans every eight years, laying out goals and strategies meant to provide enough homes to accommodate residents across all income levels.

These plans are made up of several components, each of which is shaped by community involvement. They include:

  • Assessments of the community’s housing needs, its current housing policies and how well it has done in meeting the goals of previous Housing Elements
  • A “housing sites inventory” identifying properties that are ripe for new development
  • An analysis of constraints on building homes, including local regulations that may be creating barriers to development and market factors outside a city’s control
  • Policy changes and new programs meant to ease those constraints and ensure enough housing gets built

The plan must be completed and submitted to the California Department of Housing and Community Development by the end of January 2023. Failing to submit a plan, or submitting one that does not allow for enough housing, carries stiff penalties — the state can strip cities of their authority to reject new developments and jurisdictions may face lawsuits that could further limit their local control, among other consequences.

Who creates the Housing Element?

Berkeley’s Department of Planning and Development is responsible for putting the Housing Element together, and is contracting with a consultant, Raimi and Associates, for help with public outreach.

The City Council must vote to adopt the Housing Element before the January 2023 deadline.

Getting to that point is going to involve a whole lot of meetings: Planning department staff have spent recent weeks giving presentations about the process to various city commissions, and are planning more public outreach efforts as the update comes together.

How can I get involved in creating the Housing Element?

The best way to keep tabs on the Housing Element is by visiting cityofberkeley.info/housingelement, where you can sign up for email updates about the process and see a calendar of events where it will be discussed.

“Not only do we want to hear from existing community members, but also people who wish to live in Berkeley or have been displaced from Berkeley,” said Grace Wu, a senior planner who is leading the Housing Element effort.

City officials will hold the first of three public workshops on the Housing Element at 6 p.m. on Oct. 27 via Zoom. That meeting will include a presentation and discussions for the public in breakout rooms, Wu said. Dates for the next two workshops have not yet been set, but the second will likely be held in January or February, and the third in June or July.

There will also be discussions of the Housing Element at future meetings of the Planning Commission and City Council, along with other city commissions, where members of the public can offer their comments.

And plans are in the works for more targeted outreach events with student groups, churches and other local organizations in an effort to hear from people who might not know about or participate in big public forums.

Beyond those meetings, city officials will launch a public survey where people can offer their thoughts on the Housing Element. Wu said distribution of that survey will likely start a week or two before the Oct. 27 meeting.

Downtown Berkeley construction as seen on October 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Workers at a downtown Berkeley construction site on Oct. 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

How much new housing is Berkeley planning for?

Berkeley must plan to add 8,934 new units of housing between 2023 and 2031, an allocation that comes from the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG. The city isn’t responsible for building or financing those units, but it is required to ensure its zoning has enough capacity to allow for them to be built.

That target — known as a Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA — amounts to three times the number of units Berkeley was told to plan for during the 2015-2023 Housing Element cycle. Meeting it will require the city to more than double the pace at which it is currently approving new housing, from just under 500 new units per year over the past five years, to about 1,100 on average between 2023 and 2031.

Berkeley’s allocation began with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which assigned aggressive goals for new construction to every region of California — the nine-county Bay Area must plan to add 441,176 new housing units, more than twice as many as it was told to take on in the last cycle. ABAG then divided that regional share into an allocation for every local jurisdiction in the Bay Area.

The higher targets are meant to help claw California out of its housing crisis, said Heather Peters, principle regional housing planner at ABAG.

“The state writ large has not built enough housing for many decades,” Peters said. So for the next Housing Element cycle, she said, it has “set a very high number that took into account the fact that we have not traditionally been planning for enough.”

Each city’s allocation is broken down further by affordability levels. Berkeley’s calls for the city to plan for 2,446 units for people with “very low” incomes, defined as making less than half of area median income; 1,408 units for “low” income residents making between 50% and 80% of AMI; 1,416 for “moderate” earners, between 80% and 120% of AMI; and 3,664 units for people making more than 120% of AMI.

How does the Housing Element address Berkeley’s history of segregation?

A crucial requirement of the new housing element is “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” Along with providing a fair share of housing, this means Berkeley also has to spread it around the city equitably, Councilmember Lori Droste explained.

When Droste introduced the Resolution to End Exclusionary Housing in February, she dubbed the city the “birthplace of exclusionary housing.” Berkeley was the first city in the United States to enact single-family zoning in 1916, and it began in Droste’s district — the Elmwood.

Combined with redlining and discriminatory lending practices, single-family zoning laws obstructed affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods and excluded Black and Asian residents from those areas of the city, especially North Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills.

Segregation was also exacerbated by The Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 1973, which had significant support from residents in less wealthy areas of the city at the time. They believed it would counter overdevelopment, demolition of old structures for more expensive, “ticky tacky” apartments and a period of real estate speculation that was raising housing prices.

Critics, including activist Dorothy Walker, countered that the city had not accounted for affordable housing in its general plan and the policy alone could “encourage bigotry and self-serving attitudes.

Berkeley’s resolution to do away with single-family zoning was a response to racist historic policies. In 1970, Black residents made up around 23.5% of the city’s population, with 27,421 people. By 2010, the population had more than halved. The latest batch of U.S. Census data says just 8% of Berkeley’s residents — about 9,500 people — are Black.

Cities throughout the country have taken the same step and in mid-September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on enacting the change throughout California. The changes don’t ban single-family homes themselves, but instead prohibit neighborhoods zoned only for single-family structures but not apartments or mixed dwellings.

The Housing Element in Berkeley will determine how this change is applied, factoring in discussions around eviction and demolition protections, anti-speculation, proximity to transit, subsidized housing and public safety issues like wildfires, earthquakes and climate change.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned in this process is people think we are talking about individual single-family homes, instead of swaths of single-family zoning,” Droste said. “People get defensive around their homes, but the truth is that single-family homes can be plentiful in areas that are zoned for multi-family.”

Apartment buildings in Berkeley. Credit: Pete Rosos

How does the Housing Element factor into the Bay Area’s housing and homelessness crisis?

According to the city’s latest progress report on its current RHNA targets, Berkeley is far exceeding its requirements for above moderate-income housing, while falling well behind goals for all other income levels. Since 2007, “moderate income” housing has been most underserved. Berkeley is supposed to permit 1,558 new housing units for residents with very low, low or moderate incomes during the current RHNA cycle; so far, it has granted permits for 364 units, less than a quarter of that goal.

A chart from a September staff presentation shows Berkeley’s progress in meeting its previous housing allocation goals. The city has nearly met its goal for permitted units overall, but it has fallen far short of its goals for affordable housing. Credit: City of Berkeley

When the city doesn’t create enough affordable housing, that contributes to the overall housing ecosystem in the Bay Area — the most expensive market in the country, with a steadily worsening homeless crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

City officials say the reason Berkeley is falling short of its goals isn’t because it is intentionally blocking affordable housing. Instead, they note that affordable units typically require a significant subsidy to get built, and say that without a lot more funding to help affordable housing projects pencil out, their construction will remain sluggish.

Conversations around affordable housing, and the best way to expand the city’s stock, will be a major component of Housing Element discussions. Officials will touch on projects already in the works, like the 100% affordable development at 2012 Berkeley Way that includes temporary homeless housing, projects on BART property in the Adeline Corridor and North Berkeley, and mixed-income housing throughout the city.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín tours the Berkeley Way construction on Sept. 9, 2021.
The view to the west from a window at Berkeley’s largest 100% affordable housing development, now under construction at 2012 Berkeley Way. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli, Berkeleyside

What will be the most controversial pieces of the Housing Element?

Just about all of Berkeley’s most contentious debates about growth, affordability and development are likely to play out in the creation of the Housing Element.

A long list of new housing policies will be incorporated into the update, including changes to the zoning code that would open the door for dense new development at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations, in the Southside neighborhood and along San Pablo Avenue, as well as the effort to abolish single-family zoning.

“We’re going to have to up-zone parts of our city,” Arreguín said. “We’re going to have to look at allowing multi-family housing in parts of the city where it is prohibited.”

Berkeley officials are also working on changes to the structure of the city’s affordable housing requirements in an effort to boost production of below-market-rate units.

And the city is developing a set of new objective standards for development — a process that could force choices between seeking to minimize the impact of new buildings on existing residents or giving dense projects an easier path to approval.

“I think we can achieve our housing production goals and be neighborly, but I can see that those could be tension points,” Councilmember Sophie Hahn said.

Then there’s the site inventory component of the Housing Element, which will require planners to identify specific properties that could be the site of future development and say how many new units they could accommodate. That process will likely raise questions about how the city distributes new housing — namely, whether substantial amounts of new construction is allowed in areas such as North Berkeley that have fiercely resisted development, or if less-wealthy parts of the city such as South and West Berkeley will see a disproportionate share of new building.

“We’re going to push to build housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action. “But those are neighborhoods with a lot of political power, so that is going to be a very dramatic conversation.”

Ultimately, many of the debates could boil down to the question of how residents feel about Berkeley’s growth, and the extent to which the city should regulate new development.

Former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean is among those taking issue with the amount of new housing the city has to build in the first place.

“We are already developed as one of the most dense cities in the Bay Area,” Dean said. “I don’t think we can get to 9,000 units.”

To Dean, the vision of a much denser Berkeley is not the one she wants.

“If they prevail, well, they prevail — but that’s their legacy,” Dean said of advocates for substantial increases in housing construction. “I would be extremely concerned (if) that’s the kind of city that they want to live in and leave for future generations.”

While more than two dozen cities have filed appeals challenging the housing allocations from ABAG, though, Berkeley isn’t one of them — hardly a surprise since Arreguín is the association’s president and led the committee that determined local housing allocations. He and others on the City Council argue Berkeley, as the home of several large employers and a city with good transportation links to job centers such as San Francisco, ought to take on ambitious goals for new construction.

“The reality is that change is going to have to happen,” Arreguín said. “The question is, how can we grow and change in a way that is equitable and inclusive?”

Downtown Berkeley construction as seen on October 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Downtown Berkeley construction as seen on Oct. 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...