‘A symbolic step’: Berkeley to end exclusionary zoning by 2022

FEBRUARY 25, 2021 (dailycal.org)

Photo of City of Berkeley

WILLIAM WEBSTER/STAFFBerkeley City Council took a stride toward ending racist zoning laws by voting to end the practice.


The city of Berkeley was the first in the nation to enact exclusionary zoning laws responsible for racial segregation in housing. Earlier this week, Berkeley City Council took a stride toward ending this legacy by voting to do away with single-family zoning. 

The resolution, which was unanimously approved during the council’s Tuesday meeting, is a statement of intent signaling the start of the longer process to eliminate single-family zoning throughout the city by 2022. When enacted, the resolution will allow affordable multi-family housing, such as apartments and duplexes, to be built in areas that were previously zoned exclusively for single-family houses. 

“We really pride ourselves on having this radical progressive legacy that really began in the ’60s,” said Councilmember Terry Taplin. “Our expanded history has a really dark and ugly story behind it. We’re known for being the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, but we are also the birthplace of racial zoning.”

Berkeley’s exclusionary zoning was first enacted in the Elmwood neighborhood in 1916, where regulation prevented anything other than single-family homes from being built, according to the item. 

The same laws were later used to prevent Black, Indigenous and people of color from moving into east Berkeley, and to restrict “Chinese laundromats and African American dance halls,” in some neighborhoods, the item states. 

“We cannot ignore that, from the onset, zoning’s sole purpose was to segregate by race, to the detriment of people of color,” said Councilmember Ben Bartlett during the meeting. “Even after the racist part was outlawed, it kept working because racism is inherent in the design.”

Today, Berkeley neighborhoods remain significantly segregated across racial lines as a result of the lack of affordable multi-family housing in much of east and North Berkeley, the resolution states. 

A recent study from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute ranked Berkeley eighth-highest in neighborhood segregation among more than 100 Bay Area municipalities. According to study co-author and assistant director of the institute Stephen Menendian, restrictive zoning laws have an “unequivocal” effect on racially segregating housing. 

“Single-family homes are not affordable housing, and when they’re sold they don’t necessarily become affordable housing,” Taplin said. “In order for us to achieve our climate goals, our equity goals and our housing goals, we have to be able to build apartments and other kinds of housing.”

The City Council’s vote made Berkeley the second city in California to commit to ending exclusionary zoning practices after Sacramento approved a similar resolution earlier this year. 

While the resolution does not immediately alter any zoning laws in the city, it marked the beginning of a process that will include further council discussion and a robust public engagement process, according to Councilmember Sophie Hahn.

“This is a major tangible victory and a symbolic step in that (Berkeley) is beginning to reckon with its past in a serious way,” Menendian said. “As more cities begin to take these reforms, it will build political pressure at the regional and state level to begin doing this in a systematic way.”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at jsouza@dailycal.org and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.

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