Berkeley housing reforms should actively support communities most harmed by past injustice

CITY AFFAIRS: As Berkeley City Council considers ending exclusionary zoning, measures should be put in place to ensure more housing becomes affordable

Illustration of a family looking across a street to some homes on sale, with a fourplex appearing to be the best option for them
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Despite its long-held reputation as a bastion of liberal politics in the United States, Berkeley is not without its skeletons.

The city is considered by many to be a birthplace of exclusionary zoning — discriminatory, albeit legal, policy that squeezes lower-income people out of wealthy neighborhoods by prohibiting the construction of affordable housing. The result is class-based segregation by design, and racial segregation by default, as people of color are disproportionately shut out of affluent, white neighborhoods.

Now, Berkeley has a chance to begin righting past wrongs.

In the coming week, Berkeley City Council will vote on a resolution that calls for an end to single-family zoning. If passed, this will mark a momentous shift in Berkeley housing policy — a result of years of dedication by City Council members to confront the specters of classism and racism that haunt Berkeley to this day.

But we must be wary of characterizing the end of single-family zoning as a total rectification of injustice: Prohibiting exclusionary zoning may not, on its own, directly empower the same communities disadvantaged by the policy at its inception.

Beyond a statement of intent, there’s no clause in the City Council resolution that expressly dictates the affordability of new housing developments. As a result, costs could remain out of reach for many, even as types of housing in Berkeley grow more varied.

So we must be clear on the intent of this housing reform and the impact it will have, as well as the impact it should have.

Nationally, talk of slavery reparations has begun again under President Joe Biden’s administration, continuing a centurieslong debate over restitution owed to Black Americans. The focus of reparations is often money, but ruts of injustice run deeper.

In neighboring Oakland, members of the school board recently proposed reparations for Black students who have been historically disadvantaged by a lack of resources. These discussions, while preliminary, suggest broader, local reforms to help improve education for Black students and empower entire communities.

Zoning reform can provide an opportunity for Berkeley to follow Oakland’s lead. To be clear, it’s illegal to provide housing to a tenant based on race — today, housing policy itself, unlike reparations, cannot directly or exclusively benefit the Black communities disproportionately harmed by past injustice. Still, the concept of reparations remains salient.

Should the Berkeley City Council resolution pass, housing under new ordinances in Berkeley should be developed with an eye toward those most harmed by discriminatory housing policies. That might mean intentionally setting aside units at reduced rates or implementing more expansive affordable housing requirements in new developments. As more housing is built, increased incentives, funding and subsidies for affordable units are also crucial.

Neighborhoods matter. Where children grow up has lasting impacts on their futures. As Berkeley seeks to turn the page on its discriminatory past, housing reforms should be accompanied by focused policies actively supporting communities for whom true justice is long overdue.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.