February 25, 2021

The End of the Beginning: Single-Family Zoning in Berkeley

From Planetizen:

The Berkeley City Council, the very first city in the United States to implement single-family zoning, now commonly referred to as exclusionary zoning, has voted to completely upend that legacy.*

“In 1916, single-family zoning was born in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood, forbidding the construction of anything other than one home on each lot. At the time, an ordinance stated that its intent was to protect ‘the home against the intrusion of the less desirable and floating renter class,'” reports Sarah Ravani in an article that preceded a late-night vote on February 23. …

By a unanimous vote of 9-0, the Berkeley City Council last night to end single-family zoning citywide, the latest in a string of U.S. cities to reform the planning and zoning status quo. …

The vote follows on the heels of several significant planning reforms in recent months. In December 2020, the city “approved rezoning the Adeline Street corridor and even added an extra floor of height to what builders could do there. The plan allows 1,450 new housing units, about half for low-income families in an area that was once a thriving Black, working-class community, but has become increasingly white as the high cost of housing has driven out many families.”

And in January, the City Council voted to eliminate parking requirements for almost all residential properties in the city.

The vote only starts the process of updating the city’s zoning code to eliminate zoning, a prices expected to be complete by December 2022. Then, of course, the new regulatory regime and the market will require time to shows effects of the change in the city. As made clear by Councilmember Droste during the hearing, even after the zoning changes, single-family housing will still be permitted in much of the city—it just won’t be the only kind of housing permitted. (The city of Minneapolis, with a head start on a similar process, recently reached the crucial concluding phase of a similar zoning reform process.)

* It’s always wise to be cautious about the claim to be the first of anything.  Quick search: “The earliest zoning laws originated with the Los Angeles zoning ordinances of 1908 and the New York City Zoning resolution of 1916.”  It’s possible that Berkeley was the first to pass a single-family code.


Posted in


If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on


  1. Nice!

    To add bit more substance, Berkeley is following the lead of Cambridge Mass by insisting on affordability as a condition of upzoning, something Minneapolis failed to do. I write a bit about Minneapolis in my new book Sick City.

    Portland chose a more aggressive shift than Minneapolis, Minnesota
    which received much attention for its own city wide rezoning.226 In Minneapolis,
    every single-family zone was changed to allow up to three units.
    However, success in providing more affordable housing has been limited.
    227 The problem was twofold. First, the city did not marry the change
    with allowing additional density on each lot. Second, the city did not
    require some or all units to be permanently affordable. With no increase
    in allowable mass, the ordinance failed to produce additional density,
    meaning that multiple-dwelling units could not outcompete the market
    for an equally sized single-family home. As well, the entire premise was
    that if you simply authorized a flood of potential new housing units, the
    market would deliver affordability gains. As discussed previously, it can’t.
    The natural function of an area’s housing market ensures that a square
    foot of housing in a three-unit project will not cost significantly less than
    a square foot in a single-family home located on the same parcel.
    Portland planners, with an eye toward Minneapolis, realized that
    just adding allowable units without adding new density would limit the
    market uptake. They also realized that adding density without requiring
    affordability leads to land price inflation and no net gain in affordability.
    In the end, you just get bigger buildings with no decrease in the persquare-
    foot price of the units. Portland chose a more effective approach.
    Builders that agree to make half of new units in formerly single-family
    zoned neighborhoods permanently affordable will get a substantial
    density bonus.

    Full book available (creative commons copyright) here:


  2. The important point is that exclusionary zoning must come to an end. Condon certainly points to a possible scenario for doing this. But the practise must end in at least something considerably nuanced for what’s the status quo in most of North America.

  3. The very predictable result will be: SF homes will rise far FAR more than average and even more than in the past, as we have seen for example in Portland when they started it in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Thus, also very predicable, the families that want homes [ and there are many ] will commute even further out where it is cheaper ie Pleasanton or Walnut Creek or even further beyond BARTs reach in the eastern parts of East Bay !

    Did they also relax the building code to allow to build faster thus overall cheaper construction costs thus rents and/or condo prices ?

  4. Changes are coming to the B.C. Building code that will allow wood construction to a height of 12 stories. The revised code will establish a new boundary between low emissions building and high rise high emissions from glass, concrete and steel construction. These new wood engineering standards are also new economic opportunities that will produce new architectural expressions. I expect a climate crisis / covid crisis response: small scale affordable zero emissions rezoning proposals citywide.

    1. Covid response ? With wood buildings?

      Affordability in large (or even small) cities happens ONLY if land prices are very low or heavily subsidized (say $1 land leases) AND regs & building code is vastly reduced which is unlikely as cities like all those dev fees, CACs, DCCs, application fees, BP fees, DP fees, demolition fees, amendment fees, inspection fees, final occupancy fees to keep the CUPE mandated (or shall I say extorted?) high payroll intact and growing well above inflation. Start there if you want to talk affordability, please !

Subscribe to Viewpoint Vancouver

Get breaking news and fresh views, direct to your inbox.

Join 7,303 other subscribers

Show your Support

Check our Patreon page for stylish coffee mugs, private city tours, and more – or, make a one-time or recurring donation. Thank you for helping shape this place we love.

Popular Articles

See All

All Articles