Will Berkeley Make History by Upzoning Affluent Neighborhoods?

by on January 16, 2023

Photo shows Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Rashi Kesarwani
Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Rashi Kesarwani

Council Must Send Berkeley on New Path

The Berkeley City Council can make history on January 18. The Council can upzone affluent neighborhoods not just for affordable housing—which San Jose and other cities have done—but also for market rate apartments.

The upzoning is connected to the Housing Element, which requires Berkeley to build 9000 new units. Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action (BHNCA) and other groups are pushing the Council to use the Housing Element process to boost racial and climate justice.

The city’s current Housing Element plan reaffirms the city’s racial and economic segregation. It must be rejected. The Council must instead require that the 9000 new units get built in locations that promote fair housing and racial and economic equity.

I often write about how affluent neighborhoods resist accepting new apartments in “progressive” cities. In Generation Priced Out I offer examples across the nation of  this resistance. Politicians don’t like opposing politically powerful homeowners.  But Berkeley’s council majority appears willing to take on this fight.

A Battle for Racial, Economic and Climate Justice

Berkeley’s current 9000 unit Housing Element plan perpetuates the city’s use of zoning to promote racial and class inequity. As described by BHNCA, of “only 5.4% of these new units would go in Berkeley’s whitest neighborhoods. Just 2.6% of these units would be in Berkeley’s highest income areas. The entirety of North Berkeley could see less than 3% of total new development citywide.”

Some Councilmembers have already made it clear the current plan is unacceptable. In  Berkeleyside Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani stated, “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. Without rezoning, those parts of the city will not share in the responsibility and burden of creating housing for the next generation.”

Councilmember Terry Taplin, like Kesarwani a strong advocate for a more equitable and racially diverse Berkeley, stated in a letter to the city, “Until Berkeley formally rezones its currently single-family and low-density residential neighborhoods, naturally less expensive housing options will continue to be excluded from historically segregated areas in north, east, and southeast Berkeley. Currently, higher density housing (including 100 percent affordable housing projects and larger housing projects with inclusionary affordable units) are almost entirely excluded from northern and southeastern neighborhoods in Berkeley—even in areas along commercial corridors.”

North Shattuck, College and Solano

What are the practical impacts of upzoning affluent neighborhoods? Consider North Shattuck, formerly known as the Gourmet Ghetto. The area is plagued by large parking lots bordering sidewalks. When the Bank of America and its massive parking lot extending from Shattuck to Henry Street recently closed, I called Berkeley housing people about acquiring the site.

I learned the site is not feasible for housing. Why? Because it has only a two-story height limit! A site on a major transit corridor near shops, restaurants and stores only allows two-stories. At least 100 units could easily be built but the zoning favors a parking lot.

A block away a Safeway also has a massive sidewalk bordering parking lot. Several years ago when Safeway was renovating it wanted to build housing on top of the market—neighbors killed the plan.

“Progressive” Berkeley homeowners have maintained this anti-housing zoning for decades. Ensuring housing scarcity in North Berkeley has been great for enriching existing homeowners.

College and Solano also maintain zoning restrictions that worsen affordability, foster racial segregation, and worsen climate change. Yet Sophie Hahn, the council member for the latter, “is not sure zoning is the issue” that blocks affordable housing.

Zoning Betrays Berkeley History

Berkeley has a long history of promoting racial justice. Its been represented in Congress since 1971 by two of the nation’s leading progressives and fighters for racial equity, Ron Dellums and Barbara Lee. At one point Dellums was the only Black congressmember elected by a white majority district.

Berkeley’s progressive council majority lost their seats in 1986 because they approved scattered site public housing. Public housing can’t racially discriminate and “scattered site” meant some units would  be built in primarily white neighborhoods. It was part of the progressive council’s plan to desegregate Berkeley.

But homeowners revolted. The 1986 repeal of citywide elections sent a powerful message: don’t mess with Berkeley homeowners, especially those in single-family zoned districts. That message transformed much of Berkeley into expensive white enclaves that ban new apartments; the 9000 Housing Element units offers a chance to change this.

Will a majority of the Council do the right thing? Since Terry Taplin’s election to the council in November 2020 Berkeley’s housing policies have promoted inclusion. The Council now has a chance to make the city a national model for progressive housing strategies, encouraging other cities to legalize apartments in all neighborhoods.

To tell the City Council you support equitable development, click on this link.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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