Public Comment

SQUEAKY WHEEL: DIY Affordable Housing

Toni Mester
Friday April 07, 2017 - 06:22:00 PM

The Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on the zoning of the R-1A, a slice of West Berkeley and an even smaller section of the Westbrae, at their meeting on Wednesday April 19 starting at 7 pm, at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Street at MLK.

Long neglected, the R-1A has become the scene of a tug-of-war between neighbors and developers, and many appeals led the City Council to twice refer the zoning to the Planning Commission, in 2010 and 2015. The Zoning Adjustments Board even got into the act, pleading for some guidance in March 2016, noting that the zoning allows two dwelling units but “does not include standards related to the relationship [sic] between the two units, and asking that the City to “clarify whether there is an intended relationship between the two units in keeping with the purpose of the district.” 

As a homeowner in the R-1A, I was amongst those who requested this clarification, and our group is holding an informational, preparatory meeting for R-1A residents on Saturday April 15 at the West Berkeley Library Community Room, 1125 University Avenue from 3 to 5 pm. 

The planning staff, many of whom are relatively young and new to Berkeley, deserve credit for trying to unravel the history of the R-1A and create some order out of chaos in providing direction to the Planning Commission. 

Building on a 2009 ZAB staff report by Debbie Sanderson, Senior Planner Beth Greene with assistance from intern Sydney Stephenson prepared five staff reports on the subject: April 20, July 20, September 21, 2016 and January 18, and February 15, 2017. 


Malign Neglect  

The September 2016 staff report included some background on the R-1A that inspired me to research a more detailed history, still a work in progress. Zoning is intensely political, and the R-1A is no exception. My inquiry uncovered two unexpected themes: the influence of the rise and fall of the African-American population and the effects of the hills/flatlands division on Berkeley zoning. 

If you don’t live in the R-1A but are interested in either or both of these themes, please read my paper. Briefly stated, I found a sad history of neglect in assigning useful development standards in West Berkeley. The R-1A was originally applied to Panoramic Hill as a single-family zone that allowed an accessory unit of 700 square feet, but when the zone was transferred to West Berkeley in 1967, dimensions for the second unit were deleted. That vacuum was never properly filled, creating problems to this day, not only distress and delays, but also a drain on staff time devoted to related appeals and the current effort to get it right this time. 

An essential question is whether the R-1A should serve as an intermediate zone between the R-1 and the R-2 or remain as a bastard brother of the R-2. For years, appellants have complained that the R-1A has fewer restrictions than the R-2, allowing permit applicants to build two houses of the same size, up to three stories, resulting in some oversized developments like 2211 Ninth Street. 

Developers have gotten wind of these allowances, buying up properties -some with derelict structures as well as serviceable historic homes – demolishing the buildings and putting in two three-bedroom houses and selling them as condos. The division works if the parcels are large, but the lots of West Berkeley are narrow, and off-street parking requirements mean that cars replace yards, gardens, and beneficial trees. Shadows and loss of privacy have driven many neighbors to appeal. 

The R-1A covers less than 10% of Berkeley’s land area, and the number of total parcels in both areas, around 2,000, is a tiny fraction of the total residential lots, over 27,000. For years, nobody was interested in the zoning of this undesirable backwater; even the group that developed the West Berkeley Plan of 1993 decided not to devote their time and energy to the “residential core” and turned their attention to subdividing the M zone instead. It was “anything goes” until housing demand drove up land prices and developers started to squeeze suburban sized houses onto skinny lots that were originally intended for workers’ cottages, many of which remain today. 

The number of units produced by adding detached houses, not only in the R-1A but the R-2 and the R-2A, is small. According to the current housing element capacity analysis of the residential zones, only 24 units can be added in this way. I would submit that our task is not to prohibit or reduce family sized units in residential zones but to increase them, and the problem is how. 


Form Follows Fiasco 

The Berkeley zoning code is woefully out of date, mostly because the political factions don’t speak the same language when it comes to land-use policies. If I mention form based zoning to a member of the City Council, they ask, “What’s that?” 

Instead of thinking about what types of buildings would best suit our needs, we are too busy labeling people as pro or anti-development and calling neighbors NIMBYs if they speak up for their own interests. This is not a creative mind-set. 

Because of its history, the R-1A is a mixed bag. I haven’t yet analyzed the Northbrae section, but a count of the data (from the City’s open data portal) in the 50 blocks west of San Pablo Avenue shows that 659 parcels are single family residences, 129 are duplexes, and 362 are a combination of multiples and condos. 

This is the result of a history of extreme zoning instability, an inequitable burden on the residents of West Berkeley that needs to be corrected. Our zoning decisions should guide the future, not repeat the mistakes of the past. 

According to architect Daniel Parolek’s missing middle housing conceptual framework, a duplex main building would be the next step up in density from the detached single-family house. It’s a more affordable alternative to two detached houses and allows the creation of two family sized units with maximum open space available for healthy outdoor living and the growth of carbon-absorbing gardens and trees. A duplex is a compact and cost-effective building, as two units share a foundation, roof, and at least one wall, where most of the utilities, services, and plumbing converge. The duplex is cheaper to build, heat, and maintain and offers the owner the advantage of living in one unit while renting or selling the other. The zoning of the R-1A should advantage the duplex form, either the side-by-side or the stacked and abolish the second detached house, except for an ADU. 

An ADU can be added to an existing house, but is limited to 750 square feet, which is probably the most affordable way to create dwelling units. When I added a basement apartment to my house in the 1980’s, the parcel designation was changed to a duplex but by today’s standards, it would be an internal ADU because it’s only 550 square feet. A general contractor built that unit for less than $25,000, although I did most of the finish work. 

The scale of a duplex, especially the height should be uniform but not the same as the hills, as currently allowed, because those dimensions 28-35' are based on averaging a sloped grade. See the height definition in the zoning code, p. 383-384. When the City Council transferred the hills heights to the flatlands in 1991 without providing the commonly used 45° daylight plane, they allowed the creation of many grotesque and detrimental buildings and additions completely out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods. The fact that they did so without adequate public discussion just adds insult to injury. See my paper “A Brief and Personal History of the R-1A Zoning” for a closer examination of this decision. 

Two story duplexes could average 24' (between the eaves and the ridge) in the side-by-side form and 24' to 28' for the stacked form, allowing some flexibility for the roof that will be retained if a house is raised. We should advantage the sloped roof to provide for a solar installation. The other setbacks could replicate the R-1 with a possible increase in usable open-space and the outer side setback of key lots adjoining back yards of cross streets. These are reasonable standards, commonly found in the codes of other California cities of comparable size, that blend in with existing flatland neighborhoods 

Those who mock neighbors for wanting to save trees and gardens from the shadows of taller buildings show ignorance of ecology, botany, and the beneficial relationship between humans and plants. Our green building alternatives should retain as much foliage as possible, as plants not only turn carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis but also provide food and sustenance.  

With all the benefits of the compact duplex, it’s a wonder that the total number in Berkeley is only 1,000-1,500 (count depends on the use code) out of a total of over 27,000 residential parcels. If we’re serious about increasing affordable housing opportunities we should encourage the duplex, not only building new ones, but also dividing houses, raising them, and adding-on. 


A Modest Proposal 

At least half of the residential parcels in Berkeley are single-family homes, and most of them are located in the R-1 zones. Although single-family homes can be found almost everywhere including the commercial corridors and the M-zones, the reason for the paucity of duplexes is simply that they aren’t permitted in the R-1. 

It took twenty-years of local agitation and a state law to allow accessory dwelling units in the R-1. That’s a step forward, but the ADU is limited to 750 square feet in Berkeley, whereas state law allows up to 1,200. 

The current City Council is gung-ho to encourage the building of ADU’s. Councilmember Ben Bartlett called them “DIY affordable housing” and the current thinking is to create an easy-route towards the ADU, one-stop shopping. An ADU is great for a family member, a student, or even a single parent and child but it’s not big enough for a larger family. 

The next step-up towards compact development is the duplex, and some family-sized homes can be created for less than a detached dwelling unit. If we’re serious about affordable family housing, we should abolish the R-1 to allow for duplexes. In the meantime, we can improve the current R-1A to advantage the duplex and retain green open space. It is possible to create more density without detriment. I live on a street with 45 dwelling units. It’s quiet at night; we look out for each other and tend our trees and gardens. Parking is tight, but it’s not the end of the world. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.