Framing Upzoning in Berkeley: A Case History

Becky O'Malley
Saturday March 02, 2019 - 09:44:00 AM

If you’re one of those troglodytes who’s concerned that Berkeley’s becoming Silicon Bedroom, you might want to listen to this podcast (that’s the with-it term for an audio recording which you can also hear on your desktop computer):


It’s forty minutes of giggly girly chitchat produced by an organization called YIMBY Action, described thus by the producers: “Round-table discussions on local politics and urban policy with folks hanging out at the Yimby Clubhouse in downtown San Francisco. Regulars include Laura Foote, Sam Moss and a few other loudmouths.”

Here’s what they say about this episode: “Berkeley councilmembers Lori Droste [District 8] and Rashi Kesarwani [District 1] join us to discuss their effort to expand missing-middle housing options. We also talk opportunity and belonging in the Bay Area. And a fun side story: UC Berkeley students' recent advocacy for housing at 2190 Shattuck, at what Laura describes as the "F*ck a View hearing," after a memorable student sign. (The councilmembers want you to know Laura called it that, not them.)”

Why should you care about what these people say? Well it’s the roadmap for what these two councilpersons hope to achieve with a new proposal they’ve catchily captioned “The Missing-Middle”.

The name is a confusing conflation of a number of different concepts: middle-size, middle-class, middle-income and more than a dash of Middletown. It’s one architect’s branding coinage for an idea submitted to last Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, with the YIMBYs’ blessing, by Droste and Kesarwani plus councilmember sponsors Ben Bartlett and Rigel Robinson. 

From the bio of the author of a 2017 op-ed included with the item on the council agenda: 

Daniel Parolek is an architect and urban designer who co-authored the book “Form-Based Codes,” coined the term Missing Middle Housing (www.missingmiddlehousing.com) and speaks and consults nationally on these topics. 

His thoughtful essay makes this key point: 

“We … need to change the way we communicate about housing needs in our communities. If we are using George Lakoff’s rules for effective communication we would never go into a housing conversation with a community and use terms like 'increasing density, adding multifamily, or upzoning a neighborhood.' I can think of few neighborhoods that would feel good about saying yes to any of those options if they were framed in that way, but which can mostly get on board with thinking about aging within a neighborhood, or ensuring their kids or grandkids can afford to move back to the city they grew up in..” 

So…what is this proposal all about in the end, unframed? 

The sponsors start by doing exactly what Parolek warned against: proposing upzoning neighborhoods in the first graf. They ask the council to:i 

“Refer to the City Manager to bring back to Council a report of potential revisions to the zoning code to foster a broader range of housing types across Berkeley, particularly missing middle housing types (duplexes, triplexes/fourplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, etc.), in areas with access to essential components of livability like parks, schools, employment, transit, and other services..." 

Don’t get me wrong: I love bungalow courts, courtyard apartments and small apartment houses, as well as multi-generational group houses and co-ops…and because I’ve enjoyed a long life I’ve lived in all of them at various points. But what’s wrong with the way this scheme is being introduced is a classic case of “solution first, problem second”. 

That’s a mistake I had ample opportunity to observe in my mid-life high tech career working with over-eager programmers. They showed me that it’s possible to design a very elegant scheme with many appealing bells and whistles which will crash and burn in an instant if the problem isn’t correctly defined from the get-go. 

Here’s how Thomas Lord, a Berkeley housing activist (and computer wizard), analyzed this particular housing solution in an email: 

“The idea of form-based zoning codes and of allowing residential subdivision in some areas is nothing new, though today it is dressed in new, largely false or misleading rhetoric. "The economics of a zoning change such as proposed are pretty simple in high demand markets such as this. 

“The price of a real property is, in effect, the replacement cost of the improvements (e.g. the building(s)) plus the price of the land. 

“The price of the improvements is determined by the costs of materials and labor. The price of the land in the case of the missing middle idea is determined by the level of demand. 

"Already from just that you can see that if the high-income demand for single family homes is strong enough, such buyers can easily outbid say, two potential buyers of smaller condominiums or four renters of very small apartments. 

“But it is worse than that. The conversion of a property from single-family to multi-family entails the destruction of some or all of the existing value of the single family home-- either through demolition or retrofit. Not only must condo buyers or a handful of renters outbid high income single-family house bidders, they must bid even higher to make up for the redevelopment costs. Again, this is unlikely in most cases. 

“The exception is, of course, well-worn older buildings and distressed properties -- especially any subject to rent control. These properties can be purchased at a discount because of their relatively poorer condition or because of the needs of an owner to cash out under duress. The redevelopment costs are lower and so the financial play of razing them to build high-priced condos or apartments may pay off. The state subsidizes this kind of redevelopment by eliminating rent stabilization whenever a new occupancy permit is issued. That is to say, the authors of this measure have as much a chance of worsening the affordability crisis as anything else.” 

The authors of this proposal cite the very real history of racial bias in housing, which was present in Berkeley into the 1970s, as the justification for rezoning. But they need a refresher on the details of local history, since residential segregation here was mainly enforced by real estate salespeople and restrictive covenants during most of its duration, not by zoning. 

One example: On the District 8 block where my family has lived since 1973 and Councilmember Droste’s family now lives, BUSD teacher Chinese- American Ying Lee (later a councilmember herself) and her European-American then-husband Professor John Kelly were unable to buy the house they bid on in the ‘60s because of neighbor objections to her ethnicity, enforced by the real estate agents involved. 

Thanks to Arlene Slaughter’s real estate firm and others, that had changed by the time we got there. Now, about a half-century later, I’m happy to report, we have residents on this block descended from immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe and for all I know Australia as well, and we have all kinds of housing combinations regardless of zoning. 

Ironically, there’s a very real risk that a plan like the one suggested by these councilmembers could have the most negative effect on the descendants of previous victims of racism. That’s because, as my correspondent pointed out, rezoning the previously red-lined areas west of Martin Luther King Way (formerly Grove Street) would increase over-all land price there, creating an incentive to tear down rent-controlled rentals and modest homes and replace them with new exempt “cash-register multiples”. And by specifying access to transit and excluding “very high fire severity zones” from rezoning you’ve pretty much left out the pricier parts of the Berkeley Hills. 

As the new version of the old saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but she’s still not Madonna. 

With all due respect to my old friend George Lakoff, what this idea needs is not just better framing. What it needs is clear thinking, starting with a rigorous definition of exactly what problems we’re trying to solve. 

It’s not Berkeley’s job to become Silicon Bedroom to atone for the sins of Cupertino. We need to admit that BART is nothing more than a badly designed commuter train which doesn’t even work anymore. What we need is more housing down south near those high tech jobs accompanied by inexpensive housing served by effective short-run transportation around here for BUSD’s underpaid teachers and UCB’s poorly paid service employees and under-funded students. 

Yet in the councilmembers’ YIMBY Action discussion, they point with pride to their recent approval of 2190 Shattuck, another vulgar “luxury” building which if it’s ever built will be an energy sink and a blight on the landscape for 40 years. All the missing-middle rhetoric in the world won’t make up for that. 

Oh, and by the way, if you are foolish enough to listen to that tape, make sure to go all the way to the end, so you can catch the fervent encomiums of the councilmembers and their YIMBY hosts about Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s “leadership” in getting that bad building approved, praising his deviation from his previous campaign stance on this kind of development. 

If you’re not happy with the way things are going, considering the proposal has been postponed until the March 26 City Council meeting. Between now and then, let Arreguin and councilmembers know what you think of what they’re up to, and show up at the meeting to voice your opinion.