Opinion: Downzoning is the wrong solution to a real problem

West Berkeley should be rezoned to its original R-4 zoning. It’s hard enough to find housing so it makes no sense to miss an opportunity to add more housing of the affordable kind.

A few West Berkeley residents, calling themselves “Friends of R1-A” are alarmed by the “problem” of new, large structures being built in their vicinity. They are in the process of asking the city to make it harder to add housing in neighborhoods with R1-A zoning.

On Wednesday, May 17, the Planning Commission met to discuss the neighbors’ proposal. The first speaker spoke in favor of downzoning: “We have a neighborhood protection ordinance because this has happened before: people in small houses have found themselves living next to apartment buildings.”

It’s not unusual for people to feel their neighborhood is being destroyed by housing, especially housing they think will be occupied by people they don’t like. What caught my eye about this campaign is the Orwellian way proponents were arguing for it. As a housing activist, the idea of preventing housing construction during a housing shortage offends me. As a participant in civil discourse, the cynical misuse of good arguments outraged me.

The first way that the “Friends” are misleading the public is in their name: they want to change the current zoning, R1-A, not preserve it. Their name should reflect that fact, not obscure it.

Currently in R1-A zones in Berkeley, property owners are allowed to build two single-family homes, each up to three stories, on their lots. Because until the 1960s West Berkeley had R-4 zoning (4 apartments in one building), the actual housing in Berkeley’s R1-A zones is varied. In addition to two single family homes on one lot, there are small apartment buildings, fourplexes, duplexes, and also small single-family homes.

‘Friends of R1-A’ are upset that small one-story single family homes that cost $650,000 are being torn down to build two two- or three-story single-family homes that each cost $1 million. Never mind that the number of housing units is doubled, and the amount of residential square footage is quadrupled.

Large houses and apartments are cheaper per square foot than are smaller units. Everyone who has shared a four-bedroom house with three other people knows this. Taking advantage of this bulk discount is easy for renters, but is more awkward for people who want to buy a home.

The way home buyers “share” large houses is by splitting an existing large house into a duplex, and each buy half, as a condominium. Condominiums in duplex buildings are the most affordable home buying option available in Berkeley, but you can’t just make a duplex out of any building; it has to be permitted in your zone. Currently, this kind of splitting is not allowed in R1-A zones.

The proponents of the downzoning, rightly, extol the virtues of duplexes. The “Rationale for Friends of R1-A zoning proposal” submitted by group leader Ed Herzog says,

The duplex is an affordable option that should be advantaged… The duplex is an urban compact housing type… A duplex can provide two family-sized units (three bedrooms each) in a compact arrangement of 900-1200 square feet for each unit. Two-thirds of all residential parcels are single-family houses, almost 18,000. Berkeley has an abundance of single-family homes and a shortage of senior housing and affordable alternatives for the residents of existing single-family homes who want to downsize.

You would think, based on what you know words to mean, that the Friends’ proposal will be to go back to the original R-4 zoning either by allowing two duplexes on each lot, for a total of four apartments or condos, or by again allowing one large building with four homes in it.

You would be wrong. “The duplex is an affordable option that should be advantaged,” but not so advantaged that they propose actually building very many of them. The Friends’ proposal is to allow one duplex, and no other building, on some lots, and one single family house and one little house (under 750 square feet) on other lots.

Toni Mester, who is the author of the proposed new zoning, piles on with a self-contradictory environmental argument for their low density proposal:

[The current zoning] is not the compact urban infill housing championed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to minimize suburban sprawl. This is bringing the suburbs into the urban core. …. [2209-11] Ninth Street was one of the first, two equally huge grey houses that are back-to-back …. The owners told me that the renters are graduate students. The development is over-sized and institutional looking, devoid of landscape and charm. (source)

According to Trulia, 2209-11 Ninth Street comprises two 1,143 square-foot, four-bedroom, two-story buildings with pitched roofs. Toni is criticizing cheap rental housing, and claiming that it is suburban to have two houses per lot, but that one house per lot is an example of compact urban infill.

Allowing owner-occupiers to increase housing on their own property is the gold standard for development without displacement, and should be the goal of Berkeley’s housing policy. Every other way of building housing is less good. Obviously, tearing down existing multi-family rental is out of the question. Tearing down single story retail is less disruptive, but is still a hardship for the small businesses it displaces. Remediating former industrial sites is great, but it is very expensive, so rents have to be high in order to make it worthwhile.

Letting owner-occupiers quadruple the housing capacity on their lot avoids all of those problems. It’s already hard to find housing in Berkeley. It makes no sense to give up this opportunity to add more housing, with no public subsidy, of the most affordable kind — duplex and quadplex rentals and condos. West Berkeley should be rezoned to its original R-4 zoning.

Email the planning commission to tell them what you think: aamoroso@cityofberkeley.info The next hearing is either June 7 or June 21, or might be postponed to July.

Sonja Trauss is the founder of the SF Bay Area Renters Federation and co-founder of the CA Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund. She is a proud member of the YIMBY movement, which seeks to increase housing affordability and reduce carbon emissions by promoting dense infill development in high-opportunity areas.