Berkeley must end single-family zoning, address legacy of housing policy

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There’s a reason why rental housing and apartments are heavily clustered around UC Berkeley and in South and West Berkeley, while the number of multifamily homes decreases sharply once you cross into North Berkeley. There’s also a reason North Berkeley and the neighborhoods of Elmwood and Claremont are some of the most expensive and unaffordable neighborhoods in the East Bay area: single-family zoning.

Single-family zoning is a modern form of redlining that works more discreetly. It is a policy that dictates that the only type of housing that can be built in a certain area of a city is homes for single households. In other words: no apartments. By prohibiting tenants and multiple families from living in one complex, neighborhoods create localized housing shortages, keeping property values high and keeping bigger buildings that would supposedly blight neighborhoods — or make them more affordable — away from expensive houses. This policy, found in cities throughout the United States, partly explains why apartments and complexes with multiple homeowners are heavily concentrated in Downtown, South and West Berkeley, which are considered the more affordable parts of Berkeley.

To understand housing in Berkeley, one must start with single-family zoning — because Berkeley doesn’t just participate in this racist housing policy, we helped invent it. In 1916, while cities across the United States were implementing zoning laws largely to keep out Black and Asian immigrants, Berkeley pioneered single-family zoning to be the nation’s now-widely used model — and is considered by some to be the first U.S. city to have done so. Developers and those with real estate interests in Berkeley lobbied the city to protect their developments from an influx of Black and Asian residents.

Academia has been forceful in drawing similarities between single-family zoning and policies from the Jim Crow era. According to UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute fellow Richard Rothstein in his book, “The Color of Law,” government zoning ordinances from the early 20th century prevented Black people from moving into middle-class white neighborhoods, in an effort to preserve single-family neighborhoods that lower-income people and families of color could not afford.

Further research from the Othering and Belonging Institute found that in several Bay Area cities, single-family zoning decreases Black and Latinx populations and increases the number of white residents. In Berkeley, 49% of the city is zoned for single-family homes — meaning that in approximately half of the city, you could build a mansion but not an apartment building. As the Bay Area grapples with gentrification and a housing affordability crisis, Berkeley would do well to examine both its current reality and its history.

While laws restricting Black people, Asian people and other people of color from owning homes are no longer valid under civil rights and fair housing laws, zoning has proven a much more effective tool to maintain segregation and lack of affordability without directly mentioning race. To this day, single-family zones on the Berkeley zoning map seem to align with historical redlining practices that led to heavily white-populated neighborhoods in those zones.

While some insist that ending single-family zoning is a “far-left” virtue, it seems that even liberal enclaves such as Berkeley can be slow to address segregative elements of the city. Today, it seems many neighborhoods in Berkeley without significant Black populations spout signs claiming “Black Lives Matter,” in places where Black people could never live. Many have been quick to point out that it can be easy to get urban affluent white individuals to support equality in theory, but often not in their own neighborhoods, and particularly not with zoning.

Recognizing the historical racism of single-family zoning, some cities around the United States have already sought to eliminate it. Minneapolis, for example, made headlines in 2018 for eliminating single-family zoning in an effort to address a legacy of racist housing practices in the city.

Berkeley, too, should lead the way in eliminating single-family zoning, so the city can undo its legacy and become not only affordable but diverse again. The city could start by allowing homeowners to convert their homes into multi-unit housing. There’s no reason the zoning code should ban the addition of small-scale housing.

In fact, this issue is exactly what the city’s “Missing Middle” report — which aims to explore housing options between single-family homes and high-density apartments — is addressing. I encourage residents to support this report and the implementation of missing middle housing in Berkeley. Email your representative and urge them to eliminate bygone zoning policies. Ask the City Council to support laws such as the recently rejected SB 1120, which would’ve allowed the construction of duplexes on single-family lots. Consider researching how zoning works in your neighborhood — and reflect on its current diversity as well.

Multifamily zoning standards should soon become the norm citywide. This will combat the largely exclusive options of million-dollar single-family homes that are prevalent in Berkeley’s higher-income enclaves and are spreading south and west. While President Donald Trump calls to preserve single-family zoning and a “suburban lifestyle dream,” it’s time to stand up to the pervasive legacy of segregation in our housing policy. And we must start here at home.

Darrell Owens is a public transit and housing activist with East Bay for Everyone.