Many Oakland neighborhoods don't permit the construction of apartment buildings. A new proposal could result in Oakland banning single-family zoning in parts or all of the city. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland could take the first step this month toward allowing small apartment buildings to be built in neighborhoods where, currently, only single-family homes are allowed under existing zoning laws. The proposal comes partly in response to growing awareness of the racist legacy of such rules.

On March 16, the Oakland City Council will take up a proposal from Rebecca Kaplan, the city’s “at-large” councilmember, directing city planners to look into allowing four-plexes to be built in single-family neighborhoods. The proposed resolution says the study should focus on the possibility of building more residences in “high resource areas”—meaning wealthier parts of the city, or places with more amenities—and directs staff to present options for preventing renters from being displaced if zoning laws change.

“This legislation will help move us thoughtfully and effectively toward reducing our housing crisis—while including community needs and anti-displacement protections,” Kaplan told The Oaklandside in a text message.

Banning single-family zoning would not ban single-family houses in Oakland. Instead, such a policy would prevent the city from saying only single-family homes could be built in a given zone, opening the door to larger buildings too.

“Oakland is facing a severe housing and homelessness crisis,” Kaplan said in a memo to the City Council. “Policies that enable us to build more housing, especially
housing that is affordable to middle and working-class residents, are needed.”

Kaplan’s move comes just a week after Berkeley—the city that invented single-family zoning—resolved to end its policy, and a couple years after Minneapolis received national attention for being the first to allow triplexes across the entire city. Kaplan told The Oaklandside that Berkeley’s decision and support she’s received from Mayor Jesse Arreguín encouraged her to propose the Oakland study now.

“I do feel there is more awareness of the magnitude and inequity of the housing crisis, and willingness of more people to take action to remedy it,” she added.

In recent years, researchers have shed light on how single-family zoning—the banning of any apartment buildings in a designated area—segregated cities across the U.S., often intentionally thwarting laws that prevented more explicit forms of racial segregation. Creating entire neighborhoods of single-family houses kept out residents who could only afford to live in an apartment, cutting off their access to well-resourced schools, jobs, and amenities in those areas. Critics of single-family zoning have labeled it “exclusionary zoning.”

“Zoning which allows only for single-family homes in certain high resource areas has been used for many decades to create exclusionary communities which perpetuate racial inequities,” the proposed Oakland resolution says.

KQED’s recent podcast “Sold Out” reported that single-family zoning policies in Berkeley and elsewhere often came with racial covenants banning non-white residents, and fear-mongering that surrounding property values would drop if zoning allowed apartment construction and Black-owned businesses. While Oakland neighborhoods that are today zoned for single-family homes, like Rockridge, do not come with such explicitly racist rules, they have remained the predominantly white and wealthier parts of the city. 

(Even though Oakland streamlined its messy zoning system several years ago, there are still numerous different codes that dictate what can be built, and where, across the city, covering residential and commercial construction. See the city’s interactive zoning map and its zoning regulations for more information on what’s permitted where you live.)

A UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute study found that 82% of the Bay Area’s residential neighborhoods are zoned for single-family houses only.

As the announcement of Kaplan’s policies made the rounds online Thursday, local housing-density advocates applauded a move they said could eventually enable the construction of apartment buildings in those exclusive neighborhoods, allowing lower-income residents a chance to move in for the first time. 

But advocates for tenant rights warned that apartment buildings are not inherently affordable, saying zoning changes must come with protections for renters in the neighborhoods that are affected, so developers don’t view the policy as an invitation to demolish low-rent houses and duplexes in favor of pricy new construction. In recent years, Oakland has exceeded its market-rate housing construction goals, but fallen far short of its affordability targets. Many new complexes are unaffordable for long-time Oaklanders.

Kaplan’s proposal also notes that Oakland’s topography might require some areas to remain single-family-only, for safety or logistical reasons. 

If the City Council passes Kaplan’s item on March 16, city planners and others will study the issue and come back to the council with a recommended policy at some point. At a Rules & Legislation Committee meeting on Thursday, Kaplan said she was advised by city lawyers that a study would be required before an actual law is proposed.

Regardless of what unfolds, Oakland neighborhoods are unlikely to see any major changes soon. Even Berkeley’s significant new decision, which came after a study similar to what Kaplan is proposing, was called “symbolic” by Councilmember Lori Droste, who wrote it, and puts the city on a two-year path to a single-family zoning ban.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.