Opinion: Limiting the supply of new family housing will only make Berkeley’s housing crisis worse

The Planning Commission is considering zoning changes for the area around Gilman and Westbrae, but if they listen to a minority of neighbors, the changes will hurt families.

On Oct. 18 the Berkeley Planning Commission will meet to decide on changes to Berkeley’s R-1A residential zoning. The R-1A zone, which consists of a small area around Gilman Street near Westbrae and most of the residential zoning west of San Pablo Ave, currently allows the construction of two houses per lot for lots bigger than 4500 square feet. Since lots in Berkeley are typically deep and narrow, houses are usually constructed one in front of the other. Current zoning standards allow both houses to be 3 stories tall, require 20 feet setbacks at the front and rear of the property, limit total lot coverage to 40% (45% for corner lots) and require 400 square feet of usable “open space” per unit.

Over the last few years, several new rear 2-3 story units have been constructed on R-1A zoned lots in response to the strong demand for family housing in Berkeley. This limited construction of new homes has prompted objections from a minority group of residents that have raised concerns over neighborhood affordability and shading of neighboring properties.

In response, Berkeley’s professional planning staff has devised zoning changes that limit the height of the rear unit to 2 stories and increases side setbacks from 4 to 6 feet in order to limit potential shading effects on neighbors. These are considerate, reasonable changes that we and many of our R-1A neighbors fully support.

A vocal group of neighborhood activists, however, are proposing their own draconian zoning changes that would limit the rear unit to one-story, which, when combined with increased setbacks and existing lot coverage limits and open space requirements, would essentially downzone the rear unit into an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). ADUs are useful in some instances, but have significant limitations in that in most cases they are not large enough to support a family of 3-4. Given that much of the new development in Berkeley has produced studio and 1 bedroom units not suitable for starting and raising a family, this proposed downzoning is extremely troubling as it will only exacerbate our city’s family housing crisis.

The median Berkeley single-family home sale price is ~$1.2 million as demand for existing family housing has skyrocketed beyond Berkeley’s current supply. Changes to the zoning code that prevent the construction of new family housing will thus only make family housing even more unaffordable. Additionally, very few people seem interested in building ADUs as Berkeley only received a citywide total of 18 ADU applications in 2016, suggesting such a downzoning might prevent the development of any type of new rear unit.

Our goal as a community should be to encourage the production of new housing that preserves Berkeley’s values of inclusivity and equity. Tweaking zoning codes to ensure new development does not inordinately affect others’ quality of life is completely appropriate, but enacting dramatic restrictions that will significantly limit the construction of new family housing, therefore turning away the vast majority of the families that want to join our community, is unjust and in direct conflict with the values that make our community great.

We strongly encourage the Planning Commission to reject dramatic changes to current zoning standards and embrace the compromise zoning standards proposed by the city’s professional planning staff. Democracy functions best when all parties embrace compromise and the needs of the community are prioritized over the wants of vocal activists. We encourage members of Berkeley’s community to contact the Planning Commission before the meeting on the 18th and express their support for the construction of the new family housing necessary to maintain Berkeley’s character as an inclusive, equitable city where families can live and grow.

Cynthia Tate Elliott is a Realtor and long-time West Berkeley resident. Johanna Hernandez is a tax professional raised and still residing in West Berkeley. Kit Robinson is a writer and long-time West Berkeley resident. Ahni Robinson is a retired university administrator and long-time West Berkeley resident. Ericka McConnell is a photographer. Eric Breitbard is a design studio manager.