Opinion: Berkeley may end exclusionary zoning, making it a national model for inclusion

The election of Terry Taplin tipped the balance of the City Council, setting the stage for an overhaul of Berkeley’s housing policies.

When I was speaking across the country promoting the housing policy changes urged in my book, Generation Priced Out, I did not foresee my hometown of Berkeley ending exclusionary zoning before Seattle, Denver and other cities. To the contrary, my book discusses how Berkeley’s 1973 “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance” became a national model for using “neighborhood character” and “public input” to stop new apartments.

Through most of 2020,  Berkeley refused to end exclusionary zoning. City officials would not even back Councilmember Lori Droste’s proposal to study allowing new “missing middle” fourplexes in many neighborhoods.

But that was prior to last November’s elections. Berkeley politics has since been transformed.

Today, Berkeley housing policies are on track to become a national model for inclusion. Last week, a council majority announced it had the votes to:


  1. End exclusionary zoning
  2. Legalize fourplexes in most areas if not citywide, and
  3. Do even more.

Droste and her colleagues openly condemn exclusionary housing as racist, elitist and contrary to the goals of combating climate change. The council is expected to end exclusionary zoning on Feb. 23; legalizing four-plexes is at the land use policy committee.

How did this huge change in Berkeley happen? What can advocates in other cities learn from Berkeley’s shift?

Terry Taplin’s victory opened the door to a new housing future

I wrote on Oct. 6,  (10 Local Races to Watch in November), “Berkeley’s future as a city for people of all incomes will be significantly impacted by the outcome of the District 2 council race.” Terry Taplin’s victory unquestionably opened the door to Berkeley’s new housing future.

But Taplin’s surprisingly large victory over a staunchly anti-housing incumbent cannot be seen in a vacuum. Taplin’s large volunteer campaign and electoral success reflected grassroots organizing by activists seeking to reverse Berkeley’s anti-housing direction, including exclusionary zoning.

These activists tapped a voting base that reflects Berkeley’s longstanding commitment to racial and social justice. And an electorate that wants to combat climate change. Berkeley activists awakened a long too silent majority that supports inclusive housing policies; a silent majority that still allows a vocal minority to maintain exclusionary zoning in other “progressive” cities.

Since I first moved to Berkeley in 1974, the city has had only two Congress members: progressive icons Ron Dellums and Barbara Lee. In 1971, Berkeley passed the first rent control law west of New York City. In 1979 I volunteered full-time on the Berkeley campaign that elected Gus Newport as the nation’s most openly left mayor. I was living in San Francisco when, in 1980, Berkeley joined Santa Monica in passing the state’s strongest rent control laws.

Berkeley’s left was still aligned with the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, but new housing development was not a Berkeley political issue in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley’s “housing crisis” was very severe for students, but that was due to UC’s failure to build housing, not the city’s opposition. East Bay rents and home prices were still well below San Francisco’s (when my family moved backed to Berkeley in 1989 the comparable San Francisco home prices were more than double).

But the 1990s changed Berkeley’s affordability in two major ways.

First, the passage of the Costa-Hawkins law in 1995 ended the city’s ability to impose rent control on vacant apartments by the decade’s end. This sharply drove up rents.

Second, the late 1990s dotcom boom brought increased housing demand to Berkeley. Berkeley was attracting  people once deterred by its radical politics and eager to enjoy the city’s great Bay views and amenities. This has caused Berkeley home prices to skyrocket ever since (the median price is now $1.4 million).

Berkeley’s growing unaffordability exposed how some of Berkeley’s longtime progressives were staunchly anti-development. Tom Bates, who represented Berkeley in one capacity or another from 1971-2016 (!), was solidly pro-housing. Bates’ pro-housing views scrambled city political alignments. He got housing development downtown passed by voters, but his 14 years as mayor (2002-16) also coincided with a sharp decline in student engagement in city politics and in overall public engagement.

Lack of civic engagement allowed the vocal anti-housing minority to dominate

I blame this lack of civic engagement for boosting the power of the city’s vocal anti-housing minority. Berkeley meetings came to sound more like exclusive Palo Alto than a city whose political leaders in the 1980s sacrificed their jobs to build scattered-site public housing.

I learned during book talks that most people don’t realize they live in exclusionary neighborhoods. They see apartments are on their street and are not aware that similar buildings cannot be constructed today. I heard so many people saying “Well I wouldn’t want a high-rise in my neighborhood but I certainly wouldn’t oppose a fourplex.” Yet a vocal minority in neighborhoods— overwhelmingly older white homeowners — opposes fourplexes and have controlled urban land-use policies for decades.

Berkeley’s strategy to change this dynamic was twofold. First, get students re-engaged in Berkeley politics. Students were among the chief victims of the city’s inadequate housing supply driving up rents. Yet few students were engaged in city housing politics. This began changing in fall 2017 when student Rigel Robinson used his student government post to expand student engagement; Robinson’s 2018 election as the first student City Council member solidified this momentum.

Students began turning out to council and land use meetings as a counterbalance to the anti-housing speakers who long had the stage to themselves. At a February 2019 hearing involving efforts to stop downtown housing that allegedly blocked views of the bay from the campus Campanile, every student speaker backed the project while virtually every opponent was an older white homeowner.

The second dynamic was educating and mobilizing non-students about ending Berkeley’s racist and elitist housing policies. Groups like North Berkeley Now! and South Berkeley Now! expanded focus from building housing on BART stations into broader discussions of why so many Berkeley neighborhoods banned new apartments (their efforts were aided by Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who represents the North Berkeley BART area). The Berkeley Now groups used lawn signs and Twitter to promote their message; council and land use hearings now had a lot more neighbors speaking in favor of new housing.

Other cities have ended exclusionary zoning

Berkeley’s strategy to redirect housing policies is not unique; Cambridge, MA, mobilized residents to move in a similar pro-housing direction. While public education is easier in smaller cities,  New York City has seen support for upzoning for affordable housing grow among diverse constituencies, including the current mayor. And Abundant Housing LA has secured state housing development mandates that will necessitate increase housing production in Los Angeles County and likely also within the city.

Minneapolis, Portland and Sacramento have already ended exclusionary zoning. All three built the broad political coalitions necessary for success. Seattle was moving toward this goal in 2017, but its past and current mayors let vocal homeowners and strong opposition from the Seattle Times intimidate them. The next mayor’s race could determine if Seattle becomes a much more inclusive city.

Austin had its land-use reform thrown out (hopefully temporarily) by a terrible court ruling. Denver and San Diego are ripe for public education and organizing campaigns; in both cities ending exclusionary zoning seems just a matter of time.

Berkeley’s powerful vision of housing inclusion goes beyond ending exclusionary zoning. And based on what’s happening as we speak, Berkeley’s progressive revival has just begun.

This article first appeared on Beyond Chron, Randy Shaw’s website.

Randy Shaw, a Berkeley resident, is the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which leases, manages and provides supportive services for 2,000 tenants in 21 single-room occupancy hotels in San Francisco.