‘Exclusionary and racist’: History of housing, gentrification in Berkeley

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William Webster/Senior Staff

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In evaluating the origin and consequences of gentrification and the housing crisis in Berkeley, we can look to the history of the city’s exclusionary and racist housing policies.

Berkeley was the first city in the country to establish single-family zoning laws. which prevented the creation of multiplexes and apartments, according to local housing activist Darrell Owens. Southeast Berkeley — the Elmwood neighborhood specifically — was one of the first places in the country to be zoned as single-family housing only.

Berkeley’s zoning laws hurt the ability of the city to create affordable housing. Apartments and duplexes are often more accessible to people of color or immigrants; limiting their creation is a deliberate act of pushing residents of color out, as reported by KQED. Moreover, single-family zoning laws keep housing in short supply because fewer people can be housed in the same area. A limited supply drives up the price of housing across the board and artificially creates scarcity when the city could easily alter zoning laws to enable the construction of non-single-family homes.

The concept of the single-family home is indicative of the United States’ obsession with individualism and the nuclear family. Part of the American Dream has always been the idea of owning your own home in the suburbs. Other countries in the world generally don’t have single-family zoning laws, according to Sonia Hirt, a University of Georgia landscape architecture and planning professor, in “Zoned in the USA.” If you look at Germany, for example,  people often live in apartments or attached houses. Given the reality that single-family homes are often inaccessible to families of color and immigrants, it’s worth reevaluating whether it is something the country should continue to uphold as a hallmark of whether you have made it.

UC Berkeley itself has contributed to gentrification of the city. Campus housing options, such as residence halls and apartments, are both so limited and priced so high that many students turn to off-campus options. The resulting competition for available housing in the area allows off-campus property companies to raise rental prices, said Friends of Adeline member Willie Phillips to The Daily Californian in 2018. This contributes to gentrification and pushes local residents out of town, a phenomenon known as displacement. Because white, wealthier residents generally have an advantage in securing housing, their decisions to move into neighborhoods with majority residents of color make stable housing for those communities all the more scarce.

Moreover, gentrification disproportionately affects Black residents, Phillips told the Daily Cal in 2018. Gentrification is occurring all across the Bay Area in cities such as East Palo Alto as well, and while the catalyst is different, the impact is similar: Low-income people of color are displaced and forced to leave homes they may have lived in for years.

Due to redlining and restrictive covenants, Black people have been prevented from receiving mortgages or loans, which has contributed to a low rate of Black home ownership today, as reported by Business Insider. Moreover, redlined areas — which are majority people of color — are proven to have increased economic inequality, according to a 2018 National Community Reinvestment Coalition report. Low-income children of color who grow up in redlined neighborhoods have fewer opportunities for upward mobility and usually attend schools with fewer resources than their white counterparts, according to the Polis Center’s SAVI.

Areas in Berkeley that were historically redlined include South Berkeley, West Berkeley and Central Berkeley. Conversely, the residents of Elmwood and Claremont are largely white and wealthier.

It is not a coincidence that residents who reside in redlined neighborhoods are two to four times more likely to have to go to the emergency room for asthma or other respiratory problems, a 2020 study found. These areas have disproportionate levels of diesel exhaust particulate emissions, meaning that these residents are being exposed to higher levels of toxins and pollutants than would be considered safe or healthy.

This is a failure of the state; government institutions enabled this to occur and have intentionally and repeatedly put people of color in dangerous situations, and the health effects of diesel emissions are still being felt by residents in Berkeley today, a UC Berkeley and UCSF study found.

William Byron Rumford was a Berkeley resident and Black California Legislature member who created the Fair Housing Act of 1963, which prevented landlords, real estate agents and property owners from discriminating against people of color who wished to buy or rent property. Black people in Berkeley were critical in electing Rumford to the California Legislature, where he was able to help pass multiple anti-discrimination laws.

In February 2021, the city of Berkeley voted to end single-family zoning. While it may take years to construct multiplexes, the city can expect to be able to house more people in the next decade.

Currently, 75% of low-income neighborhoods in Berkeley are already experiencing gentrification or are at severe risk of being gentrified, according to the Urban Displacement Project.

To fight against displacement and gentrification in Berkeley, community organizing is crucial, the Next System Project says. Tenant protections and rent stabilization policies will provide more power to low-income residents.

With gentrification comes the loss of historical landmarks. In Berkeley’s case, the city risks losing People’s Park, a historical center of radical leftist, free-speech activism in the late 1900s and Black-owned businesses that serve to strengthen and bind the community.

As the city of Berkeley moves to create more affordable housing and enables the construction of multiplexes, it is hopeful that residents of color will not be displaced and fewer individuals will be unhoused.

Contact Amrita Bhasin at [email protected]