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The US city that pioneered NIMBY zoning has finally abandoned it

Men jog along a path in front of a mural in Berkeley
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
A new dawn for housing in Berkeley, California?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

In 1916, a neighborhood in Berkeley, California became the first in the US to require only single-family homes be built on land there, a move intended to exclude Black and Asian residents. Since then, single-family zoning has become common throughout the US, a practice that economists say has driven up the cost of housing and disproportionately impacted minority groups.

Early Wednesday morning, the city council voted unanimously to end the practice, which advocates hope will lead to more affordable housing and less displacement of Black residents from the city. The vote could be an inflection point for debates about housing in the San Francisco Bay Area, ground-zero for the affordability crisis in the US.

“Other cities around the Bay are scared of electoral backlash and scared they can’t move,” says Darrell Owens, an activist from North Berkeley NOW! and co-executive of East Bay for Everyone, a non-profit dedicated to making housing in the region more affordable. “To see Berkeley take a step forward we think will probably have a domino effect.”

A history of exclusionary zoning

Berkeley is known as a left-wing city, home to a University of California campus and a legacy of activism. But even as the city became the first in the US to desegregate its school system, single-family zoning spread. Some 83% of land in the Bay Area allows only single-family housing to be built, compared to about 75% of land nationally.

In practice, single-family zoning and other regulatory measures that increase the cost of building housing are segregation by another name—between 2000 and 2015, the number of Americans living in high-poverty areas doubled  disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic families.

During the tech boom of the previous decades, hundreds of thousands of new residents moved to the Bay Area, but not enough new housing has been built for them. That has driven up the cost of existing housing stock dramatically. While pandemic-driven changes in remote work have led to a growing number of departures, few expect all of the more than 600,000 people who moved to the Bay Area in the last decade to leave the region.

By instead allowing multiple units to be built, the same parcel of land could house two or three families, increasing density and affordability and pushing back against physical segregation. Economists like Edward Glaesar argue policies like these would boost economic growth and improve environmental outcomes.

How housing politics in Berkeley changed

Efforts to build more housing can run into opposition from groups that say they don’t want to change the character of their neighborhood, and others who fear that new housing will accelerate displacement of vulnerable communities. But as rising home values continued to change the community inexorably, Owens says, residents organized and coalesced around a vision of housing affordability they could get behind.

“Tenants want more housing because more housing reduces rent. Homeowners want more housing—they want to add a subdivided addition, have their kids move back in with them. People saying, yeah, I want housing at my BART [commuter railway] station,” Owens said. In elections since 2014, a pro-housing majority has emerged on the city council.

Building that coalition required sometimes difficult conversations about racial disparities. “No one is saying you are a racist because you live in a single family home, and no one is saying that single-family homes are racist,” Owens explains. “What we are saying is, ‘making a law that the only kind of housing you can build is the most expensive kind of housing there is doesn’t make any sense and has a very racialized and class-based impact.'”

The contradiction of lefty Berkeley maintaining such a policy was epitomized by figures like Robert Reich, an influential progressive economist who supported an effort to make an unremarkable home into a landmark in order to block the development of 10 new housing units in his neighborhood.

“People started to have a different look at what message it sends that one of the most left-wing cities in America also has a shameful stain,” Owens says. “It’s responsible for us as a city that invented such a terrible law to be the one that rebukes it.”

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