The Berkeley City Council approved an eight-year housing plan on Wednesday that commits to rezoning several major streets in an effort to encourage denser development in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Council members also took a step toward making it easier for property owners to demolish houses and replace them with duplexes, fourplexes and other small apartment buildings as part of the city’s move to add housing in areas long zoned only for single-family homes.
The 656-page plan, known as a Housing Element, is now before regulators from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, who will decide whether the document constitutes a realistic and legal roadmap for how Berkeley will add at least 8,934 new homes by 2031.
If state officials reject the plan — as they have with scores of Housing Elements from cities across California — Berkeley could be stripped of its local zoning authority and lose access to valuable grant programs.
But planning staff and other city officials say they’re confident that won’t happen. Mayor Jesse Arreguín argued Berkeley’s plan charts a “sustainable, equitable and affordable” path for the city to meet state mandates and respond to the housing crisis.
“We have an opportunity with this Housing Element update to demonstrate our values: that we are a city of inclusion [and] that we believe in fair housing,” Arreguín said.
Solano, North Shattuck, College eyed for rezoning
The council voted unanimously to adopt the Housing Element at a special meeting Wednesday night.
Members also unanimously approved an amendment to the plan, authored by Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, in which they pledged to rewrite zoning rules to allow greater housing density along College, Solano and the north end of Shattuck avenues in the Elmwood District and North Berkeley. Details of the new zoning rules will be worked out in a process that is expected to start this year, and must finish by the end of 2026.
Pro-density groups and several council members have for months been advocating for Berkeley to make a firm commitment in the Housing Element to rezone wealthy neighborhoods. The Housing Element had previously stated the city would only “evaluate” zoning regulations for major streets and didn’t name specific corridors.
Advocates pointed to data showing that under current zoning rules much of the city’s new housing would likely be built in downtown, the Southside neighborhood and parts of West and South Berkeley, while historically wealthy areas were expected to absorb far less new construction and a tiny share of new affordable housing.
“It’s critically important for the high-resource neighborhoods with a history of exclusionary zoning to share equitably in the new housing that Berkeley must construct,” said Councilmember Mark Humbert, who represents Elmwood. The district enacted the nation’s first single-family zoning restrictions more than a century ago in an effort to block a dance hall that catered to Black patrons.
Supporters of the amendment argue that in Berkeley, like cities across the country, tight zoning rules and low height limits have long discouraged development in wealthy neighborhoods that once excluded non-white residents. The rules have effectively pushed new housing into poorer neighborhoods with lower land values and looser zoning rules, such as South and West Berkeley, where new development can spark debates over gentrification. Meanwhile, wealthy areas that are rich in amenities — from grocery stores and transit service to tree canopies and public parks — see little change and, in effect, remain exclusive.
“If we fail to rezone as part of the Housing Element plan,” Kesarwani said, “we simply reinforce the existing zoning — which is predicated on racial exclusion, and treating the formerly red-lined and yellow-lined areas of the city differently than the higher-resource areas.”
How should Berkeley regulate demolitions?
Councilmembers were split on a more controversial proposal to loosen rules for home demolitions, which was dialed back in the face of opposition from tenant advocates who worried the change would make it more attractive for landlords to tear down rent-controlled housing.
Supporters said the item, also authored by Kesarwani, would make it easier for property owners to construct “middle housing,” or smaller multi-unit buildings in neighborhoods mainly made up of single-family homes.
They argue Berkeley should let property owners, in certain cases, get “by-right” approval to tear down an existing home and replace it with a new project, meaning the city would grant the permit through an expedited process that doesn’t involve a public hearing. Getting the OK for a demolition today requires going through the slower and more extensive use permit process. The amendment called for exempting any property that had housed tenants within the past five years from by-right approvals.
Commissioner Nathan Mizell was one of several members of the Rent Stabilization Board who opposed the amendment during the public comment period of Wednesday’s meeting, saying any changes to Berkeley’s demolition ordinance must be “scrutinized greatly,” and that the board needed an opportunity to have a “full conversation” about them. Several public speakers also criticized the amendments because they were posted online Tuesday afternoon, about 24 hours before Wednesday’s special meeting.
After the public comment period, Kesarwani announced revisions to several controversial aspects of the demolition amendment. Whereas the proposal originally committed that Berkeley would “amend the demolition ordinance to provide a by-right pathway,” the wording was changed to say officials will only “consider amending” the ordinance. The revisions also limited the kinds of structures that could be eligible for by-right demolitions to only single-family homes, and added language pledging to discuss any changes at a joint committee of City Council and Rent Board members.
Kesarwani said finer details of a new approval mechanism for demolitions would be worked out in a public process over the coming year tied to Berkeley’s updated zoning rules for low-density neighborhoods.
“We will have a process to determine how exactly we would go about doing this, to ensure we have protections for rent-controlled units, for tenants and for historic or landmarked structures,” she said.
Still, three councilmembers — Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison and Susan Wengraf — voted against the demolitions amendment, and echoed concerns that making it easier to tear down existing homes could create problems for renters.
“There are a lot of tenants living in single-family homes,” Harrison said. “I want to have the maximum tenant protections.”