Oakland is considering permitting buildings with up to four units throughout the city, especially in "high-resource" areas. Credit: Pete Rosos

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The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to look into allowing four-unit apartment buildings to be built across the city, including in neighborhoods that currently only allow single-family homes.

City planners will study the implications of changing Oakland’s zoning laws—which spell out what can be built where—and return with a proposal that also takes into account how to protect renters who may be at risk of getting displaced by any zoning changes. 

With this vote, Oakland follows a resolution by Berkeley last month to eliminate single-family zoning there, and joins a growing number of other cities grappling with the unsavory origins and impacts of their zoning codes.

“There is a long and troubling history of exclusionary zoning being used in ways that disproportionately harm communities of color and that disproportionately undermine affordable housing,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who wrote Oakland’s resolution.

Oakland’s zoning code divides the city into numerous areas designated for commercial, residential, or industrial uses. Each of the many residential zones has different rules around how many units a new building can include, how tall it can be, the number of parking spaces per unit, and other requirements. Zoning laws dictate the maximum number of units allowed in a building, so if an area is zoned for fourplexes, that means anything between one and four units can be built there. Eliminating single-family zoning does not ban the construction of single-family homes, but rather says larger buildings are permitted too.

In many East Bay neighborhoods, single-family zoning was instated in response to homeowners who worried that apartment buildings and public housing would attract lower-income residents and bring down their property values. Property owners and real estate agents in some of those neighborhoods also used racial covenants on property deeds that legally barred Black and Asian residents from renting or buying houses, and some pursued single-family zoning laws after explicit discrimination became illegal. UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging institute recently found that Bay Area cities with higher proportions of their neighborhoods zoned for single-family houses still tend to be disproportionately white and less diverse than the Bay Area as a whole.

But in Oakland, many low-income neighborhoods with mostly residents of color are also zoned for single-family homes only. This includes many areas in deep East Oakland. Tenant advocates have raised concerns that a zoning change in these parts of Oakland could invite developers to tear down affordable or rent-controlled houses and duplexes, building high-end fourplexes in their place and fast-tracking gentrification. Some of those neighborhoods also have the only remaining single-family houses that are still affordable to moderate-income, first-time homebuyers.

“I think there needs to be strong demolition protections and a right-of-return for people who might be displaced by the construction of these buildings,” said Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents West Oakland and downtown, at the meeting. 

Oakland’s new resolution says the city should focus on allowing four-plexes in “high-resource” areas—typically wealthier neighborhoods with amenities that can be inaccessible to poorer residents. This could include Rockridge, said Kaplan, who represents the whole city as the at-large councilmember.

“This item is an opportunity for us to be both pro-housing and pro-justice,” she said. “I reject the notion that we have to pick to only be one or the other in order to equitably serve our community and to expand housing options in a way that protects existing communities.” 

Kaplan said Black communities have been harmed by both demolition—referring to the decades of “redevelopment” of the once-thriving Seventh Street corridor in West Oakland, which destroyed hundreds of Black families’ homes and businesses—as well as “exclusion from single-family neighborhoods.” 

Kaplan’s resolution notes that some Oakland neighborhoods may not be appropriate places to build apartment buildings, though, especially if they’re located on a slope or prone to wildfires. 

“It’s important to realize that not every part of our city is exactly the same,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb who represents North Oakland, Rockridge, and parts of the hills that were destroyed by the 1991 firestorm. “If there are areas that have very high wildfire risk, those might not be places to add a substantial amount of density. And in our city, those are the areas that are also not very transit-friendly.”

But Kalb said he’d already been in talks with Rockridge community groups about zoning changes there. 

Councilmember Loren Taylor, who represents parts of East Oakland, asked for the city to conduct an equity analysis, studying the racial impacts of zoning changes, while crafting the new policy proposal. 

Planning Director William Gilchrist praised the resolution, telling the council that it’s coming at a “perfect” time. Oakland is about to update its citywide housing plan, a move that would be required for the type of zoning change being discussed, he said. 

Kaplan said she was conscious of Berkeley’s parallel effort when she chose to propose the zoning study in Oakland

“We should align those efforts and include those community experts and advocates in this work,” said Kaplan.

The resolution does not give city planners a deadline for coming back to the City Council with a proposal. Gilchrist said the process will include community meetings where residents can voice their opinions.

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 grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.