New: Lori Droste’s “Missing Middle” Housing Proposal Needs a Reality Check (PUBLIC COMMENT)

Zelda Bronstein
Sunday March 17, 2019 - 10:17:00 AM

Item 22 on the council’s March 26 agenda is a proposal to allow “missing-middle” housing—“duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, etc.”—“across Berkeley.” The measure is sponsored by Councilmembers Droste and endorsed by Councilmembers Bartlett, Kaserwani, and Robinson, with Droste taking the lead.

In her memo, Droste argues that extensive residential densification would

· remedy the city’s legacy of racial discrimination;

· “encourage] greater socioeconomic diversity”;

· and “potentially reduce greenhouse gas consumption” by “allowing the production of more homes near jobs centers and transit”

To back up these claims, Droste cites letters of support from UC Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, and a laudatory March 11 op-ed in the Chronicle by State Senator Nancy Skinner.

It takes five votes to pass a resolution at council. The “missing middle” proposal already has four. It may well have a fifth: On February 27, Mayor Jesse Arreguín tweeted: “I tried to get this passed last night and we will get it done on March 26.”

If Droste and her allies do get it done on March 26, they will have paved the way for a new round of real estate speculation, inflated property values, and gentrification that will hurt Berkeley’s most vulnerable residents. That’s because “missing-middle” housing is market-rate housing. As for fighting climate change: Transit-oriented-development is a feel-good notion whose effectiveness is hotly disputed among planning scholars. People who can afford market-rate housing are more likely to drive. Berkeley traffic is already bad; if Droste’s measure passes, it’s going to get a lot worse. Long on pious rhetoric and short on evidence, Item 22 is a sham.

Jesse, please reconsider. 

Missing-middle housing is market rate housing 

Whatever the intentions of its originator, Berkeley architect Daniel Parolek, the term “missing middle” is being used by politicians as a marketing ploy. State Senator Scott Wiener, to take a notable example, features “missing middle” housing in SB 50, the do-over of his failed controversial 2018 bill, SB 827. Not incidentally, SB 50 is co-sponsored by Skinner and Wicks (among others) and endorsed by Schaaf, and Droste’s proposal shares key elements with SB 50, including a provision for “missing-middle” housing. 

Droste touts “missing middle” housing as a way of countering the “exclusionary” effects of single-family zoning. In February, she told the Bay City Beacon: “’We want planning to look at legalizing smaller, multifamily housing, which benefits students, low income residents and residents of color.” In her letter, Professor Chapple asserts that “zoning reform” à la “missing-middle” housing “has the potential not just to address the housing crisis but also to become a form of restorative or even transformative justice.” 

Such “reform” would be transformative, all right—but in behalf of less, not more, social justice. That’s because “missing-middle” housing is market-rate housing, which is to say, it skews toward the wealthy. 

Droste dances around that fact. Her memo says: 

“Missing middle housing is a term used to describe; 

  1. a range of clustered or multi-unit housing types compatible in scale with single family homes; and/or [emphasis in original]
  2. housing types naturally affordable to those earning between 80-120% of the area median income.”
So is Droste working with both descriptions or just one—and if the latter, which one? 

It’s hard to say, based on what comes next: 

“While this legislation aims to address the former, by definition and design, missing middle housing will always be less expensive than comparable single family homes in the same neighborhood, leading to greater accessibility to those earning median, middle or lower incomes.” 

Droste further obfuscates matters by failing to put numbers to those income categories. 

Here are some relevant figures: As of May 1, 2018, HUD has pegged the area median income (AMI) for a four-person household in Alameda County at $104,400. That means that for a four-person household, 80% AMI is $89,600; and 120% AMI comes to $125,300. 

By HUD standards, to qualify for below market rate, i.e., officially affordable housing, a household may have an annual income of up to 80% AMI. (“Middle” and “lower” income, which appear in Droste’s memo, have no place in the HUD lexicon.) 

It follows that “missing-middle” housing, which targets households with 80-120% AMI, is market-rate housing. 

Do Droste and her colleagues really think that students and low income residents, whom she names as beneficiaries of her proposal, can afford market-rate housing? 

Item 22 says that “by definition and design, missing middle housing will always be less expensive than comparable single family homes in the same neighborhood.” Exactly what does this mean? Does it refer to price per square foot, or something else? “Definition and design” are one thing; outcomes are something else. Where is the evidence that supports this claim? 

The Droste memo refers to “missing middle” housing as “naturally affordable.” Property values are not natural. They’re a function of economics, which is to say, they reflect decisions taken by human being. 

Thanks to one such decision, the California Legislature’s passage of the Costa Hawkins Act, no housing built in the state after February 1995 may be subject to rent control. So what’s going to make new “duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, etc.” affordable to low-income households—those with incomes of 80% AMI or less—especially in today’s red-hot real estate market? 

Droste blames single-family residential zoning for housing injustice in Berkeley. From Item 22: 

“Approximately half of Berkeley’s housing stock consists of single-family units and more than half of Berkeley’ residential land is zoned in ways that preclude most missing middle housing. As a result, today, only wealthy households can afford home in Berkeley. [emphasis added] 

Accordingly, Droste’s crew wants to allow greater density in most of the single-family residential neighborhoods in Berkeley, arguing that such upzoning will make the city more accessible to low income people. 

But the more units on a parcel, the greater the profits that can be squeezed out of it, and hence the higher the value of the property. Inflated real estate values foster gentrification and displace the most economically vulnerable. 

According to UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, much of the area west of MLK is currently subject to “Ongoing gentrification and displacement.” Upzoning that part of the city to allow triplexes/fourplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, etc.” would surely worsen current residents’ vulnerability. 

Indeed, Droste acknowledges the displacement threat. In a passage that echoes the “Sensitive Communities” provisions of SB 50, Supplement #1 to her original memo recommends: 


The types of zoning modifications that may result from the requested report could, as discussed above, significantly increase Berkeley’s housing stock with units that are more affordable to low-and middle-income residents. However, staff’s report should consider possible side effects and ways that policy can be crafted to prevent and mitigate negative externalities which could affect tenants and low-income homeowners. Steps must be taken to address the possibility that altering, demolishing remodeling, or moving existing structures doesn’t result in the widespread displacement of Berkeley tenant or rent-controlled units. Staff should consider what measure are needed in conjunction with these zoning changes (e.g. strengthening the demolition ordinance, tenant protections or assistance, no net loss requirements or prohibiting owners from applying if housing was occupied by tenants five years preceding date of application.)” [emphasis added] 

So much for using market-rate housing to “encourage] greater socioeconomic diversity” in Berkeley. 

Blotting out African American homeownership  

Item 22 stigmatizes single-family zoning across the board as a vestige of racist practices in Berkeley’s past. As the Droste memo observes, 

“For decades Grove Street [now Martin Luther King Jr. Way] created a wall of segregation down the center of Berkeley. Asian-Americans and African-Americans could not live east of Grove Street due to race-restrictive covenants that barred them from purchasing or leasing property.” 

The city’s color line was reinforced by redlining, the discriminatory lending policies facilitated by the federal government’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). 

Item 22 includes a color-coded HOLC-era map of Berkeley that shows mortgage lending risks “based on racial composition, quality of housing stock, access to amenities, etc.,” thereby “allow[ing] lenders to enforce local segregation standards.” 

This shameful history needs to be marked and remembered. 

But when Droste indicts Berkeley’s current single-family housing per se for perpetuating a “de-facto form of segregation,” she distorts local African-American history. From Item 22 : 

“Neighborhoods identified as ‘best’ in green on the HOLC-era map typically remain zoned a single family residential areas today. Red ‘hazardous’ neighborhoods [on the HOLC-era map] are now largely zoned as manufacturing mixed use, light industrial, or limited two family residential.” 

On Berkeley’s current zoning map, shades of yellow and orange represent zoning for residential uses. The darker the color, the denser the permitted housing. 

Most of the northeastern and far southeastern parts of town are light yellow, zoned R-1—Single-family Residential. But so is the substantial neighborhood around San Pablo Park that was right in the middle of the “red ‘hazardous’” area. In mid-century Berkeley, that neighborhood was not white. 

In his magisterial 2003 book, American Babylon: race and the struggle for postwar Oakland, Brown University Professor Robert Self tells a different story: 

“African-American families sought the greater physical comfort, economic security, and class status that a move out of West Oakland afforded. People moved when they could. Until the mid-1950s, the paths out of West Oakland went north, along San Pablo Avenue, Market Street, and Telegraph Avenue into south Berkeley. ‘Half the Negroes in Berkeley in those days had just moved out of West Oakland,’ C.L. Dellums recalled. ‘As soon a they got on their feet and got jobs,’ they moved out.’ Berkeley’s 21,850 African Americans in 1960 lived overwhelmingly in the southern part of the city, in areas contiguous with West and North Oakland’s neighborhoods. Real estate interests and white homeowners maintained the color line at Telegraph Avenue. Neighborhoods northeast of Telegraph remained almost entirely white through the early 1960s, but African American homebuyers and renters faced significantly less opposition from west of there all the way to the industrial districts along the bayshore….In those neighborhoods, as many as 86 percent of African American families in some census tracts were homeowners.” 

The area around San Pablo Park was a famous hub of African American community life. 

Is (Berkeley’s) single-family zoning a major impediment to housing affordability? 

Droste predicated her proposal on an affirmative answer to this question. For authority, she could cite the California Legislative Analyst Office’s 2015 brief and the many academic economists and legal scholars who view onerous local regulations as the primary factor in the soaring cost of housing in the Bay Area and other hot markets. Loosen those regulations, they say, and you will enable new construction whose availability will lower prices across the board. 

Now the supply-side position is coming under attack from a formidable critic, internationally renowned economic geographer and UCLA Professor Michael Storper. In a 2018 paper, “Separate Worlds? Explaining the current wave of regional economic polarization,” Storper rejects a supply-side explanation of the “slowdown in interstate mobility in the 1980s, and especially in the new millennium.” 

“The proof for the claim that housing is expensive primarily because of supply restrictions rather than changes in income distribution in the New Economy,” he writes, “is, simply, inexistent.” That’s because in “’superstar cities,’” 

“the excess demand over supply for housing on the part of those with high incomes drives up local housing prices, which in turn skews the composition of in-migration to these areas by excluding lower income people.” 

More recently, Storper ha expanded that critique and applied it to SB 827 and SB 50. In an interview posted by The Planning Report on March 19, he calls “blanket upzoning” a “blunt instrument” that’s 

“not going to…solve the housing crisis for the middle classes and lower income people. Even with so-called affordability set-asides, the trickle down effect will be small and could even be negative in the highly-desirable areas.” 

Here’s why: 

“Cities like LA, San Francisco, or anywhere else in coastal California have a strong economic base that attracts skilled people in occupations with high wages. They also have a large population with very low incomes. What drives housing prices up is the strength of the fundamental economic forces that causes the skilled to want to be in big metropolitan areas today. This force is much stronger than 30 years ago. The payoff for a skilled person to locating in a big city today (in terms of higher wages compared to locating in other places) is much bigger than in the past. That is why the skilled continue to crowd into LA and even the Bay Area, in spite of their high housing costs. It’s also why any increase in supply will mostly benefit them (in terms of better housing choices for them). That’s fine, but what it is unlikely to do is have a strong trickle-down effect, and up-zoning legislation is largely being sold on the affordability or trickle-down argument.” [emphasis added] 

Just so, in a Yimby Action podcast, Droste first says that it’s “challenging for people to wrap their mind around” her proposal, “because it’s really wonky.” Her solution: “If we frame this around social justice, which it 100 percent is, then we can get people aboard.” 

What Berkeleyans, starting with the Berkeleyans sitting on the city council, need to realize, is that what’s inside the frame of Droste’s proposal—the wonky guts—is not about social justice. It’s about market-rate housing and unsustainable growth. 

The sustainability mirage 

Droste would have us believe that densification-by-market-rate-housing would make Berkeley more affordable and equitable and at the same time fight global warming. Tacked onto the end of Item 22 under the heading “Environmental Sustainability” is a five-sentence paragraph that references a 2018 paper by three UC climate researchers, “Carbon Footprint Planning: Quantifying Local and State Mitigation Opportunities for 700 California Cities.” The paper estimates how carbon consumption, aka greenhouse gas emissions, might be abated by local policies in our state. One such policy is infill, new construction in currently developed places. Droste’s conclusion: 

“The most impactful local policy to potentially reduce greenhouse gas consumption by 2030 is urban infill. In short, Berkeley can meaningfully address climate change if we allow the production of more homes near job centers and transit.” 

In her op-ed, Nancy Skinner says much the same thing: 

“According to a 2018 report by researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, the single most important way for cities to reduce their carbon footprint by 2030—which scientists say is the deadline for avoiding catastrophic climate change—is to build urban infill housing.” 

These are shout-outs for smart growth—the idea that building compact housing near transit and jobs will get people out of their cars and onto transit, bikes, and their own two feet. 

At first glance, that idea may seem to be verified by Figure 5 in the 2018 report, which shows that in Berkeley, urban infill would do the most to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

Time for another reality check. To begin, the UC researchers take pains to indicate that what they are offering is not a reliable forecast but rather a model. Under the heading “Uncertainty and Limitation,” they write: “This is in no way a prediction of future emissions, but rather a scenario for deep GHG abatement….Like any model, our results must be observed within the context of the assumptions we have made.” (That they understate Berkeley’s 2017 population by 25 percent, giving it as ~92,000, when, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it was 122,324, does not inspire confidence.) 

Regarding infill, the UC researchers assume that compact development in settled areas would entail shorter travel distances, smaller homes and household sizes. They say that for “[t]he abatement potential of infill development for transportation and energy,” they relied on two other studies. Both of those studies, however, are also based on modeling rather than on before-and-after empirical investigation that sought to find out if smart growth works. In other words, we’re dealing with a model based on two other models. Not reassuring. 

The more recent of the two supporting studies, published in 2010, has a defensive tone. Noting that “[a] debate has ensued over the potential role of the built environment, and particularly of compact growth, in stabilizing global climates,” the authors call “[d]oubts about the potential GHG-reducing effects of sustainable urbanism…understandable in light of inconsistent research findings to date.” Their cautious conclusion: “the built environment should not be written off, and some settings could very well play a pivotal role in lowering VMT [vehicle miles traveled], GHG, and petroleum consumption.” 

Since 2010, the controversy over transit-oriented development (TOD) has grown. The first 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association includes an academic donnybrook sparked by the lead article, “Does Compact Development Make People Drive Less?” The answer given by the author, University of British Columbia Professor Mark Stevens, is: Yes, but not enough to qualify dense development a major GHG reduction policy. 

Bringing the TOD debate closer to home, consider Professor Chapple’s skepticism about the effectiveness of smart growth. In her prize-winning 2016 paper, ”Integrating California’s Climate Change and Fiscal Goals,” Chapple writes: “The effectiveness of land use interventions to reduce VMT varies by neighborhood type, but in general, impacts are low.” Summing up her argument in an op-ed, she opined: “California’s biggest impact on global GHG emissions comes not through its ability to reduce its own emissions, but rather to influence others through policy innovation.” 

So is smart growth basically PR? 

I assume that Councilmember Droste would say, No. 

But her memo tacitly acknowledges that the upzoning she seeks would entail increased private auto ownership and use in Berkeley, in that Item 22 would exclude from the proposed upzoning “very high fire severity zones as defined by the CalFire and/or the City of Berkeley.” 

That makes sense. We’re all haunted by images of people desperately trying to flee the catastrophic Paradise fire, only to find themselves stuck on roads clogged with vehicles filled with other refugees. 

But what that exemption (which, conveniently for Droste’s re-election prospects, would apply to the high hill neighborhoods in her council district) intimates is that greater residential density means not only more people but also more cars, particularly when densification is to be achieved via market-rate housing. “Missing-middle” housing targets the more affluent market, and higher-income people are better able to afford cars and to own them. 

Congestion isn’t just an issue in “very high fire severity zones.” I live on Tacoma Avenue across the street from Thousand Oaks School Park. When cars are parked on both sides of the street, which is often the case, Tacoma turns into a one-way street. I regularly witness stand-offs and road rage, as two cars face each other, and neither driver is willing to back off. 

Surely that happens on heavily trafficked, narrow streets all over town. And regardless of whether they’re susceptible to wildfires, all neighborhoods in Berkeley are vulnerable to a major earthquake. The implementation of Droste’s scheme would make such streets more hazardous in times of emergency. 

Trying to short-circuit Berkeley’s public planning process 

Recognizing that the changes contemplated in her memo are draconian, Droste has tried to assuage Berkeleyans’ anxieties. On February 27, she tweeted: 

“We are not proposing ANY zoning revisions so this is just requesting information from a much larger community-driven process that in all likelihood we are going to have to do in the near future anyways. I promise information isn’t scary. We can do this.” 

I got the same message from Councilmember Kaserwani at the March 10 town house at Camp Adamah overseen by herself and Mayor Arreguín. After I compared the “missing middle” proposal to SB 50, Kaserwani demurred, “It’s just a report.” 

Oh, c’mon. This is not just a request for information or a report that’s going to sit on a shelf. The council’s approval of Item 22 would be the first step toward amending the city’s zoning laws along the lines set forth in Droste’s memo. In two other February 27 tweets, Droste admitted as much, even while she downplayed the significance of her proposal:  

“…the Berkeley City Council will be considering authorizing a study on missing middle housing in the city. We’ll be live tweeting when that happens….Not only is it just a study, it’s a study conducted by the nation’s leading experts in missing middle housing who is [sic] beginning density standard work for the City of Berkeley AND said they could easily incorporate this.” 

(The aforementioned experts, by the way, are the ones at Optico, the firm run by “missing middle” originator Daniel Parolek. Cozy.) 

Droste seems to think that her proposal is a done deal, a presumption evidenced by the fact that her memo short-circuits the city’s customary route for the consideration of zoning changes. Ordinarily, a councilmember’s request for zoning changes goes first to the Planning Commission, where it can be vetted by the public, and then back to the council. And since the council has created its own Land Use Committee, requested zoning changes ought to go there at the same time as they’re routed to the Planning Commission. 

Instead, Item 22 asks that the council “[r]efer 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…” 

Councilmember Harrison told me that when Droste’s proposal was before the council’s Agenda Committee, she asked that it be referred to the Land Use Committee. Her request was voted down by Agenda Committee members Arreguín and Droste. 

According to the Bay City Beacon, Droste intends to bypass both the Planning Commission and the Land Use Committee: 

“Following an affirmative Council vote, Berkeley’s City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, will work with the Planning Department to determine how this may be implemented, and to reconfigure the zoning code to allow for the construction of duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments, townhomes, and so on. The Planning Department would then issue a report outlining this new zoning. Following such a report, Councilmember Droste will then revise the original legislation and craft it into actionable law before a final City Council vote.” 

In general, standard Berkeley protocol ought to be followed, especially when it comes to the sort of zoning changes entertained by Item 22: amendments that are sweeping and informed by planning concepts disputed by scholars in the field. And I haven’t even gotten into the questions—totally ignored by Droste’s memo—about how the city would fund the services and infrastructure needed to support the greatly expanded population that her proposal envisions. 

In fact, the “missing middle”/market-rate housing proposal is so ill-conceived that rather than being routed to the Planning Commission and the council’s Land Use Committee, it should simply be withdrawn from council consideration.