Opinion: Berkeley’s zoning laws wall off communities of color, seniors, low-income people and others

Zoning laws in Berkeley have been used historically to exclude African Americans and other populations from certain parts of the city. For equity’s sake, they must be changed.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander notes that even in the age of Obama, the vestiges of slavery remained. Just as Jim Crow laws survive through mass incarceration, so does an American caste-structure continue through the use of zoning.

Zoning in Berkeley began in the 1910s as an open effort to protect single family homes from “deterioration.” (See “The Necessity of a Zone Ordinance in Berkeley” by Charles Henry Cheney, Berkeley Civic Bulletin, Vol. III: No 10, May 18, 1915.) In an address to the Berkeley City Club in 1915, City Attorney Frank V. Cornish articulated what wealthy elites considered to be neighborhood “deterioration” – the intrusion of “undesirables” and “heathen Chinese” in Berkeley.

Zoning, as a phenomenon, swept the entire nation, but as overt racial restrictions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, proxies for race prevailed. Zoning discourse evolved from “no negroes” to “no apartments.” Berkeley City Attorney Frank V. Cornish asserted that keeping apartments away from affluent areas was necessary, as “[a]partment houses are the bane of the owner of the single family dwelling.” This sentiment was the source of decades of racially exclusionary zoning laws.

But in the 1960s, the people won a victory. BART was coming to Berkeley and threatened to continue the practice of walling off communities of color to enforce segregation. South Berkeley — already reeling from decades of redlining, deed restrictions, and overt racial zoning — organized to underground the BART line. The community succeeded, thanks to the tireless work of our neighborhood activists, including Mabel Howard and Ron Dellums. Shortly thereafter, the African American population started moving into new apartments in North and East Berkeley.

In response, Berkeley passed the “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance”, effectively banning new apartment construction for several decades. This ordinance did not mention race, but instead sought to preserve “neighborhood character”. As a result, from 1970 to 2000, fewer than 600 dwelling units were built in Berkeley. We can track the steady decline of the African American population in Berkeley — almost to the year — with the enactment of this ordinance. Fewer units means more pressure on our low-income residents and people on fixed incomes, like seniors and people with disabilities. It means pressure on young people growing up and studying in Berkeley who cannot find a place to live.

Today, most people who oppose apartment construction similarly complain about impacts on neighborhood character. Impacts such as parking, traffic, shadows, views, and claims that families only live in houses. Though we have evolved to become a more inclusive society, our institutions and zoning laws don’t reflect our new ethic.

The pernicious thing about exclusion is that it begins with the most vulnerable, and then expands to everyone else. What started off as exclusion based on race, has now expanded to include class, economic status, and age. If we continue to limit the construction of apartment buildings to only one part of town, we will not meet the needs of seniors, the working class, low-income people, and young people.

Integration and the fight for civil rights are ongoing. This is why Berkeley declared itself a sanctuary city, despite incredible pressure and threats of retaliation from Washington D.C. The next step in our journey toward inclusion requires the sensible and ethical reform of our zoning laws.

All doors open!

Ben Bartlett is the City Councilman representing District 3. Yelda Bartlett is an attorney.