Opinion: Allowing more units in residential neighborhoods will help the housing crunch and reduce greenhouse gases

Berkeley is unaffordable for teachers, office workers city staff — those called the “missing middle.” Berkeley should approve a study that looks at how to put more units in areas now reserved for single-family homes.

On March 26, Berkeley City Councilwoman Lori Droste and her colleagues Ben Bartlett, Rigel Robinson and Rashi Kesarwani will present a proposal asking city staff to study the possibility of allowing multiple unit buildings in current single-family zoning areas, within the parameters (height, lot coverage, etc.) allowed by current zoning.

I urge the other City Councilmembers to vote yes on this “Missing Middle” report because it will help Berkeley 1) begin to heal the wounds of our city’s past racial and economic segregation; 2) provide a home that our children and their teachers can afford; and 3) become a regional leader in the fight against climate change.

During most of the 20th Century, Berkeley’s zoning code was explicitly designed to segregate our city racially and economically — reserving the single family neighborhoods of east and north Berkeley for the white and wealthy, while effectively limiting the rest of us to south and west Berkeley. Surely, it’s time to rid ourselves of that hateful legacy. Zoning for more housing in our single family neighborhoods will allow us to do that.

Berkeley’s housing crisis is turning us into Palo Alto. Thirty years ago, I chose Cal over Stanford because I preferred the economic and racial diversity of Berkeley to the smug whitebread monoculture of Palo Alto. Now, Berkeley feels more and more like Palo Alto every day. After Cal, I raised two children in Berkeley with the hope that they would settle here as adults. Given the outrageous housing prices that they now face, I have little hope that they will be able to afford to come home when they have families of their own.

The clear answer to this crisis is to build a lot more housing for every income level — especially the missing middle: teachers, office workers, city staff, policemen, firefighters, the folks who make our city tick.  As a teacher, I know only too well that I would now be forced to commute from the Central Valley if I had not been lucky enough to buy a home in Berkeley 20 years ago. As an ardent admirer of our city, I know that Berkeley is about the people who already live here – and about the people who would like to live here – not about crystalizing existing single-family neighborhoods in their current low-density configurations.

Finally, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are the largest share of any sector (40% in California and 60% in Berkeley), and those emissions are going up, not down, because of the increasingly long commutes that missing middle and lower income workers are forced to endure by the inner Bay Area cities’ refusal to build enough housing over the past several decades. Berkeley has a moral imperative to help those workers get out of their cars by being able to afford to live closer to work.

Berkeley has always been a regional, statewide and national leader on environmental policy. It’s time for us to take up that mantle again by acknowledging that a severe lack of housing in our region is fueling the planet’s gravest environmental issue — the climate crisis that scientists tell us we have only 12 years to solve before our planet becomes largely uninhabitable.

Droste’s proposal asks city staff to study how more housing in our neighborhoods can help Berkeley do its part to address the vestiges of past racial and economic segregation; provide a home that our children and their teachers can afford; and become a regional leader in the fight against climate change.  I urge the City Council to pass it.

Betsy Thagard has been a south Berkeley homeowner for more than 20 years. She is on the steering committee of South Berkeley Now!