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Eliminating Single-Family Zoning Signifies Progress Towards a Fairer City

Mason-McDuffie was a real estate and development company responsible for building some of the most iconic Berkeley neighborhoods, including Elmwood Park.

Mason-McDuffie was a real estate and development company responsible for building some of the most iconic Berkeley neighborhoods, including Elmwood Park. In 1916, to ensure that their newly developed neighborhoods would attract rich, white buyers, they rallied the Berkeley City Council to pass one of the first racist zoning laws in the country, which prevented non-white buyers from living in the newly built neighborhoods. These laws served as a blueprint for other cities to do the same. While now acknowledged as redlining and single-family zoning, these laws still prevent racial and socioeconomic integration in Berkeley.

The legacy of Mason-McDuffie was taken to task when the Resolution to End Exclusionary Housing was passed by the Berkeley City Council at their most recent meeting. Though just a resolution and therefore relatively toothless, the attempt to end exclusionary zoning represents an important policy shift in reckoning with Berkeley’s racial and economic segregation.

Single-family homes are expensive, and in order to live in them, you have to be wealthier. An American Community Survey puts the average income of people in single-family homes at about three times that of people who live in duplexes, triplexes, or quadruplexes. There is nothing wrong with people who live or want to live in single-family housing, or neighborhoods with these types of homes. Rather, the problem lies in zoning restrictions that are enforced on buildings that are not single-family — and thus more affordable — in such neighborhoods. 

Single-family zoning restrictions don’t allow the building of cheaper options like duplexes, triplexes, or apartment buildings in certain areas of the city. These restrictions economically segregate neighborhoods, separating areas where more affordable buildings are built — areas without single-family zoning — from areas where they aren’t — areas with single-family zoning. Unsurprisingly, this segregation happens between the hills and the flatlands, with the majority of single-family houses being in the North Berkeley and Elmwood hills, and affordable, non-single-family options being built in South and West Berkeley.

Berkeley loves to tear itself apart for not being progressive enough and for not following through on its promises of equality and justice. Yet this recent move by the city council to defend economic and racial justice is an example of Berkeley making good on its ideals. It must be mentioned that the resolution just proclaims the city’s intent to end single-family zoning and does not deal with any of the nitty-gritty issues that will come up with the end of zoning, like safety concerns, as building density increases, protection for tenants in rent-controlled spaces, and the preservation of architectural beauty. However, the resolution marks the first step on an important journey to end a painful, nationwide legacy that Berkeley helped start.