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Berkeley Passes Resolution to Eliminate Historically Racist Single-Family Zoning

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) -- A new plan to revamp Berkeley neighborhoods enacted by the city council this week updates zoning laws to end past policies of housing discrimination.

Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to ban single-family zoning, a restriction that is coming under increased scrutiny across the country as a cause of racial segregation in housing.

"We're known for our progressive history but we have a couple skeletons in the closet," said Berkeley resident and housing-equity activist Darrell Owens.

He lives in one of the many small multi-unit apartment buildings on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. But if the young African-American man walks one block away to a stone marker at Yolo Street, he is suddenly in an area that would not have welcomed him 100 years ago.

"This is the city that originated single-family zoning for racist and classist reasons that spread nationwide, particularly after WWII," said Owens.

Single-family zoning known as "R-1" is common throughout the Bay Area and across America and prohibits the building of multi-unit housing. It prevents people who cannot afford to buy a home from living in the neighborhood.

In 1916, it was introduced to the world in Berkeley as a way of intentionally excluding lower-income people of color.

"When the realtor magazine says, 'Thank you for this single-family zoning, you're going to stop the Negroes and Asiatics from moving in to these parts of Berkeley,' we know what the intent was," said Owens.

Clearly, that is not the intention of everyone living there now. But the policy remains and it is being pointed to as a reason for the high degree of racial separation in housing.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the Berkeley City Council voted to ban "R-1" within the city limits. Details haven't been ironed out, but it may be replaced by something called "R-2A," which would allow property owners to build or split their current homes to a maximum of four units.

"What we've been stating all along is this is not going to solve racial inequities. But what we can say is we cannot go on that path without addressing this," said Councilmember Lori Droste, who introduced the resolution.

The changes would happen slowly as owners propose additions or alterations to their properties. Tuesday night's action was simply a resolution to declare the council's desire to make the change.

The details of a new zoning designation will come later. It is sure to cause some discord in the previously single-family neighborhoods, but it's also seen as a shot for some to live where they never could have afforded it before.

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