Cars and a motorcyclist pass through the intersection of College and Alcatraz in Southeast Berkeley
The City Council could change zoning rules for College Avenue and other popular streets in Berkeley’s wealthiest neighborhoods to allow more apartment buildings. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight Local

Berkeley’s most prosperous neighborhoods aren’t taking on their fair share of new housing in plans for the city’s growth over the coming years, according to some local officials, who contend less-wealthy areas are set to shoulder an inequitable share of new construction.

West Berkeley Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin made that case in letters to planning staff this summer in response to a draft of the city’s Housing Element. The planning document, which cities throughout California are drafting this year, lays out how Berkeley will meet a state mandate to approve nearly 9,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031.

Taplin and Kesarwani were joined by Councilmember Lori Droste and several housing advocacy groups in arguing the city should rezone parts of “high-resource” neighborhoods such as North Berkeley and the Elmwood District to allow for more apartments to be built along popular corridors such as Solano and College avenues, as well as the northern blocks of Shattuck Avenue.

“It’s very hard for me to explain to my constituents why they are seeing so much development along San Pablo Avenue and virtually none in the higher-resourced commercial districts of our city,” Kesarwani said in an interview. “Without rezoning, those parts of the city will not share in the responsibility and burden of creating housing for the next generation.”

The letters could foreshadow debates about Berkeley’s growth at city council meetings over the coming months and years.

Staff in the city’s Planning and Development Department are currently working on what is likely to be a contentious set of zoning changes that would allow smaller apartment buildings in neighborhoods that today are mainly made up of single-family homes, which supporters of greater density see as one path to building more housing in wealthy areas.

After those changes are done, staff will launch another process next year to revise zoning rules for streets Berkeley considers transit corridors, which could result in taller height limits or other steps to allow more dense housing along North Shattuck, Solano and College.

San Pablo Avenue has dozens of vacant and industrial properties that city planners believe could be turned into new housing. A developer wants to turn this lot at 1201 San Pablo Ave. into a 66-unit apartment building. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who represents North Berkeley, was skeptical zoning changes would make much difference in the amount of housing that gets built there. Although Hahn noted she was part of the unanimous city council vote last year that launched the rezoning processes, she said the area’s higher land prices and smaller parcels can make projects less attractive.

“The idea that we can’t produce affordable housing in North Berkeley with the zoning we have is false,” Hahn said, pointing to the opening of the 34-unit Jordan Court apartment complex on Oxford Street this year.

“I welcome, embrace, and would like to see more affordable housing in North Berkeley,” she said. “I’m not sure the zoning is the issue.”

The letters from Kesarwani, Taplin and Droste were in response to a draft of Berkeley’s Housing Element that city planners released in June. Berkeley must approve a final Housing Element that complies with state law by the end of January, and officials in Sacramento have been closely scrutinizing those plans.

Planning staff submitted a revised Housing Element draft to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for an initial review earlier this month. That updated draft includes a new reference to the upcoming work to change zoning on “transit and commercial corridors, particularly in the highest resource neighborhoods.”

The revised Housing Element does not specify North Shattuck, Solano or College avenues as locations for rezoning, but Berkeley Planning Director Jordan Klein said those streets could “absolutely” be part of the effort.

Where should nearly 9,000 new homes go?

Several housing advocacy groups have taken issue with the “sites inventory” portion of Berkeley’s Housing Element, which lists properties where city staff believe developers could build new housing over the eight-year cycle.

The inventory shows many of the city’s prospective sites for new housing are along San Pablo and University avenues, at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations, or in downtown and the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley. Other parts of the city have far fewer prospective housing sites.

A person walks along Ashby Avenue in the Elmwood District of Berkeley
City planners have identified far fewer prospective sites for new housing in the Elmwood neighborhood compared to less-wealthy areas such as West Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight Local

An analysis Kesarwani included in her letter showed the sites inventory identified capacity for 3,600 apartments to be built in West Berkeley, compared to 326 in Northeast Berkeley. The imbalance was even bigger for affordable apartments, with 1,956 eyed for West Berkeley and 136 in Northeast Berkeley. And even within that smaller pool of properties, Kesarwani and others contend some sites identified as candidates for new housing are unlikely to be redeveloped since they’re already occupied by businesses.

“That is not fair — that does not affirmatively further fair housing,” Kesarwani said, referring to the state requirement that cities equitably distribute affordable housing throughout all neighborhoods. “In fact, it does the opposite.”

She tied the imbalance to Berkeley’s history of redlining and other forms of housing discrimination. West and South Berkeley were zoned to allow more industrial and commercial uses, such as auto body shops, that weren’t permitted in whiter and wealthier parts of the city; today, many of those sites are seen as prime candidates for new development.

By not planning for more housing in areas such as North or Southeast Berkeley, Kesarwani said the city’s plans also mean fewer people will have access to the amenities existing residents in those areas enjoy, from parks and tree cover to better air quality.

And while wildfire concerns have led officials to limit growth in the historically well-off Berkeley Hills, advocates contend other wealthy neighborhoods could safely take on more new homes.

“I think that every district, every neighborhood, has to play a role in the future of our growth,” Taplin said. “We can’t just site all of the subsidized housing [and] all of the density, along San Pablo and Adeline — it has to go everywhere.”

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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,...