In the 1960s, the Elmhurst neighborhood of East Oakland by the San Leandro border was a suburban community populated by mostly white middle-class families. But Oakland was rapidly changing, and the city’s public housing authority began building multi-unit affordable complexes among the single-family homes. 

Newspapers described the construction as an “invasion by apartment house developments” now towering over a previously “sprawling” neighborhood. They quoted furious residents.

“All the good neighbors have moved out,” complained a man on Sunnyside Street, who told the City Council he’d begun carrying a shotgun to fend off criminals. Others talked about overcrowded schools as kids from the public housing projects began enrolling. The objections were shaped by the not-so-subtle racism of the white residents, who begged their elected representatives to make it illegal to construct more big buildings in their neighborhood. 

In 1971, the City Council responded to pressure from the homeowners and enacted the “first major ‘down-zoning’ in Oakland to protect a predominantly single-family dwelling neighborhood,” The San Francisco Examiner reported. The neighborhood was no longer “zoned” to allow tall buildings on residential blocks.

Fifty years later, the council is considering “upzoning” the same East Oakland neighborhood and many others like it across town. The goal, say proponents, is to encourage the construction of multi-unit housing in a bid to make the city more affordable. But the deeper goal is to undo the legacy of single-family zoning, which originated as a means of preventing low-income residents and people of color, especially Black people, from moving into white neighborhoods. 

In March, the council voted unanimously to look into the possibility of eliminating “single-family zoning.” The Planning Department will launch a process to study whether Oakland should make it legal to build duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes citywide. If the council ultimately upzones those areas, it would still be legal to build houses and smaller buildings, but that’s not all that could be built.

Many affordable housing advocates support the idea.

“Single-family-only zoning has been such a powerful tool for economic and racial exclusion,” said Gloria Bruce, executive director of East Bay Housing Organizations, which advocates for affordable housing. “It’s pretty clear and pretty documented that it’s much harder for people of color and immigrants to find a foothold in communities only zoned for single-family.”

Indeed, over the past century in Oakland, from the Upper Rockridge hills to the deep East Oakland flatlands, homeowners and real estate agents pushed for apartment bans, creating a pattern of housing segregation that has endured in our region, even after overt methods to maintain white-only neighborhoods were outlawed.

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. For example, Oakland zones 65% of its residential land as single-family-only, below the 81% Bay Area average, and is one of the most diverse cities in the region. Lafayette, on the other hand, is zoned almost entirely single-family-only, and is 75% white.

“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 City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who wrote Oakland’s resolution to explore the elimination of single-family zoning. 

Before the council passed the resolution, Kaplan mentioned Rockridge as a prime candidate for rezoning: It’s been an affluent and majority-white neighborhood since much of it was built in the early 20th Century. Rockridge has lots of amenities and an unsavory history of exclusionary housing, and allowing greater density there could make it more affordable and diverse.

But cities and regions have also undergone incredible changes since they were first zoned, decades ago. And some neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing have become predominantly non-white and lower-income. 

Unlike Rockridge, Elmhurst is not the image of the wealthy, white fortress that’s become associated with single-family zones. Even after the neighborhood was downzoned in 1971, it became quite diverse as white people moved out. Today, Oakland’s 94603 ZIP code, which includes much of Elmhurst and deep East Oakland, is 58% Hispanic, 29% Black, 6% Asian, and 3% white, according to census data, with a median household income that’s half the regional average. 

East Oakland residents often describe a dual history of disinvestment and gentrification in their neighborhoods by the city and developers. Many crave more amenities like parks and grocery stores. Rockridge residents, conversely, have a long history of successfully shaping city planning that impacts their neighborhood. 

Some residents in deep East Oakland are skeptical their neighborhoods will have access to the new opportunities and land value created by the likely upzoning. Others remember urban renewal and fear their communities will be targeted—that developers, gaining new permission to build, will tear down their houses and put fancy new apartments in their place. Undoing single-family zoning there could play out differently there than in wealthy Rockridge.

The city’s steps toward rezoning raise questions about what unique considerations need to be taken into account in different neighborhoods. How can Oakland ensure that any zoning overhaul empowers the residents and communities who’ve been repeatedly marginalized by existing and historical housing policy? 

We looked at two distinct, largely single-family neighborhoods in Oakland—Upper Rockridge and Elmhurst—to find out how both places ended up with restrictive zoning, and what might happen to each if those rules are reversed.

Rockridge was single-family from the start

Single family homes in the Upper Rockridge neighborhood.
Upper Rockridge began as an exclusive tract that banned both people of color and apartment buildings. Credit: Amir Aziz

After the 1906 earthquake wiped out their homes, San Francisco residents poured into Oakland. The city’s population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910. 

Savvy real estate developers took note, building housing over the hayfields of Rockridge and surrounding neighborhoods and advertising to newcomer businessmen who wanted to escape to serenity after a day of dealmaking downtown. These developers strictly limited what could be built within their tracts, and who could move in. 

Real estate advertisements unearthed in recent years reveal a clear link between developers’ refusals to allow apartments and racist exclusion.

“We make it impossible for flats or apartments to be built in Rock Ridge Park, nor can negro or Oriental own property there,” a 1909 Laymance Real Estate Co. ad stated in The San Francisco Chronicle’s Suburban News section. Apartments and Black people were seen as synonymous intrusions that would bring down the property values and quality of life for wealthy white homebuyers. Home deeds came with racial “covenants” requiring the houses to be sold or rented to white people.

Lower Rockridge, west of Broadway, was home to a more diverse range of middle-class residents, many Italian immigrants who worked at the Bilger Quarry (today it’s the big Safeway on Pleasant Valley Avenue), said Stuart Flashman, a land-use lawyer and board member of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, a non-profit neighborhood group. “Upper Rockridge was where you had your UC professors or corporate executives—it was definitely upper-class.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the private restrictions and covenants gave way to official city zoning codifying the apartment bans. But in the citywide zoning plan adopted in 1935, Rockridge was deemed a “one-family district.” 

Many upzoning advocates see a through-line between laws that banned explicit discrimination and the single-family zoning that took hold afterward. About 10 years after Rockridge was established, a series of Supreme Court rulings and federal laws began to prohibit the blatant racism rampant in early 1900s housing policy. In 1917, a Supreme Court ruling found race-based zoning—banning Black people from living in a neighborhood, for example—unconstitutional. A 1948 Supreme Court ruling found racial covenants like those in Rockridge unenforceable. And in 1968, the landmark Fair Housing Act prohibited racial discrimination in home sales and rentals.

“One thing that has remained constant is single-family zoning,” said Derek Sagehorn, a member of East Bay For Everyone, which advocates for more density and housing development. “We’ve eliminated the [legal] or formal discrimination in lending practices, but still continue it in our zoning codes. We still have racial and class-based segregation.”

Today, Rockridge demographics don’t stray very far from the original vision of Rock Ridge Park. White people make up 69% of the 94618 ZIP code, compared to 29% of Oakland overall, according to census data. Rockridge is 13% Asian, 9% Hispanic, and just 4% Black. The median household income is $168,000, more than double the Oakland average.

Real estate site Zillow says the typical home price in Rockridge is $1.9 million, more than three times deep East Oakland’s $570,000.

These days, most of Rockridge is zoned “RM-1” or “RD-1” meaning just one housing unit is allowed on each lot, though the owner can apply for a permit to build a second unit on a lot if the site is large enough. Property owners can also build an “accessory” unit, like a backyard cottage or a basement rental, thanks to a 2016 city ordinance that applies to the entire city. They can’t build a triplex or anything larger.

Decades of downzoning in Rockridge

Rockridge got another downzoning push in 1974, when a new rapid-transit agency plopped one of its stations down in the middle of College Avenue. 

The building of the BART station came just a few years after the state used eminent domain to tear down residential blocks in Rockridge and elsewhere to create the CA-24 and I-980 freeways. 

“The construction lasted a long time and destroyed a lot of stores and the community that was there,” said Glen Jarvis, a Rockridge architect who’s been involved in community planning groups for decades. “A lot of residents picked up and moved to Orinda and Lafayette. Houses became rentals without maintenance.” Jarvis was able to buy his house during that period, since homes were unusually affordable.

When people started talking about building high-rises around the new BART station, residents were livid, viewing the premise as another top-down change to their beloved neighborhood.

They got together and came up with a new proposal: a new two-unit zoning designation for lower Rockridge, unique commercial zoning designed to promote back-to-back retail on College, and maintaining single-family zoning in Upper Rockridge. 

“Fliers were distributed around the neighborhood,” said Flashman. “The whole of Rockridge tromped down to City Hall and convinced or coerced the council to adopt their zoning.”

Stuart Flashman on College ave in Rockridge Neighborhood. Credit: Amir Aziz
Stuart Flashman, land-use lawyer and community planner, says it’s unlikely developers will rush to build in his Rockridge neighborhood, because of the high land costs. Credit: Amir Aziz

Jarvis said the effort solidified Rockridge as one of the most desirable areas to live in Oakland. 

“We went from a rundown neighborhood where you could easily buy a house, to what you have today,” he said.

Advocates of “upzoning Rockridge”—which has become a rallying cry—see the flipside to enshrining Rockridge’s legacy as a high-end, single-family neighborhood. They say density limits ensured that it would become all but impossible for middle- and lower-income newcomers to move in, as Jarvis himself did when housing was cheaper.

“Nowadays, if you build a new BART station, you expect five-story buildings,” said Sagehorn. “They downzoned to stop that. You couldn’t even build a duplex” in parts. These days, College Avenue itself is zoned to allow apartments above ground-floor retail, but the residential blocks jutting off the thoroughfare are single-family. 

When a firestorm tore through the Berkeley and Oakland hills 20 years later, obliterating houses and killing 25 people, residents became even more certain that single-family zoning made sense for Rockridge. The city required those rebuilding their houses after the 1991 tragedy to keep them spread apart and set back from the street, to reduce density and ensure there would be fewer people evacuating on narrow roads. But the rebuilding was also an opportunity to double down on long-held Rockridge values.

Notes from a Claremont/Rockridge Neighborhood Association meeting six months after the fire say the group supported zoning that would “minimize excessive massing on lots and attempt to preserve privacy and view corridors.”

“Their tradition of low-density housing was a concern and the residents wanted to maintain it,” said Emily Foster, Oakland History Center librarian.

The City Council’s recent resolution to explore the elimination of single-family zoning puts special attention on “high-resource areas” with good transit, services, and schools, but high housing prices. The idea is to upzone exclusive places so more people can live in these areas and benefit from what’s there. But the resolution also says changes must take into account unique geographic concerns. Adding more people, cars, and density to the narrow, winding streets in the fire-prone hills could be deadly.

Some are concerned that legitimate issues could be blown out of proportion to maintain privilege. At a recent East Bay Young Democrats forum on zoning, Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste, who wrote that city’s recent upzoning resolution and represents the hills area bordering Rockridge, warned against using fire danger as an excuse to keep exclusionary zoning.

“Of course we’re not going to jeopardize lives, but we need objective standards,” she said. “We’re not going to carve out standards just because people live in the hills.” 

Will builders flock to Rockridge?

Single-family homes in Rockridge. Credit: Amir Aziz

What will Rockridge look like in 10 or 20 years if Oakland upzones it?

Density advocates say it’s important to open the door to more housing in an exclusive neighborhood that has great public transit, good schools, clean air, and blocks of popular shops within walking distance.

“Right now we see a firehose of investment in downtown and West Oakland,” leading to concerns in those areas about gentrification, said Sagehorn. “So let’s redistribute some of that growth to North Oakland.”

But “it’s not clear to me that we’re just going to have this land rush,” he said. “It’s more likely that we’ll have individual homeowners deciding, ‘I’m going to add a unit or two.’”

Recent state and local laws have made it much easier for homeowners to build “accessory” units—backyard cottages, or basement rentals. Rockridge residents have jumped at the opportunity. A recent Rockridge Community Planning Council meeting on how to build an accessory unit drew 50 or 60 eager homeowners, Flashman said. Allowing fourplexes could prompt a similar phenomenon: families looking to build an apartment for grandpa, or convert part of their home into rentals once the kids leave, to bring in retirement income. 

At-large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan wrote Oakland’s upzoning resolution. Credit: Courtesy Rebecca Kaplan

Developers might also take advantage of the opportunity to build new apartments in an area of Oakland that draws some of the highest rents and house prices—but that high land value can also stymie development, especially of the sort of affordable housing that has always been elusive in Rockridge. 

Sensing zoning changes on the horizon, the Rockridge Community Planning Council recently asked Darin Smith, a development consultant who works with local governments, to study the likely impact of upzoning Rockridge and the potential for affordable housing. 

Smith’s conclusion: “Even if there’s a willing property seller, the costs of redeveloping lots are high,” he told the group. Most lots are expensive, relatively small for an apartment building, and currently occupied, necessitating acquisition and combination of a few neighboring properties to make a large-scale development viable. 

Affordable housing is all the more difficult to “pencil out” for developers, because the low rents yield little profit. The state allows a “density bonus” for some affordable housing, permitting taller, bigger buildings in exchange for low-income units. But Smith found that more incentives for affordability would be needed in high-price Rockridge.

Racism in Rockridge

Pamela McDonald’s African American family was able to buy a coveted Upper Rockridge house 40 years and three generations ago—but she made a heartbreaking decision recently to move to Philadelphia. In her view, zoning changes and tenant protections don’t address the phenomenon of middle-class Black people like her leaving Oakland along with lower-income renters. Rezoning won’t abolish plain old racism.

“We have essentially been displaced—not because our rent or mortgage increased,” said McDonald of her family’s trek to the East Coast, in a Facebook message to The Oaklandside. “We just got sick of feeling like we weren’t welcome in our own community. The last black family on our street moved out in 2018.” Philly isn’t “perfect,” she said, “but I am treated much better here because there is a thriving black middle- and upper-middle class in the city and suburbs.”

McDonald said she “loved Oakland with all my heart,” and was active in the arts and political world, including holding positions on the board of Oakland Art Murmur, the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, and as a county arts commissioner. But the displacement of artists and Black residents and the influx of new, white residents—plenty living in the “newly zoned and constructed, dense, market-rate housing,” some of which had replaced art spaces—changed things, she said.

“I started to endure incidents of blatant everyday racism in both San Francisco and Oakland, Montclair, Uptown and downtown, which shocked me as I had never encountered it before in the Bay Area I knew,” she said. “I spent more and more time in arguments on NextDoor, in the Upper Rockridge section, where some sort of fever convinced neighbors to hire private security, and install expensive surveillance cameras,” despite minimal, low-level crime. 

One time the family dog ran away, and they went out looking for it, calling the pet’s name while walking up and down the street. A neighbor took to an email listserv to warn about a “black, possibly Hispanic” man casing the area, scouting houses to burglarize while “pretending” to look for a dog.

McDonald’s stomach dropped. “I realized that they were referring to my husband and my son,” she said. 

Can East Oaklanders benefit from upzoning?

Single family homes in Deep East Oakland
The Elmhurst neighborhood by the San Leandro border has been zoned for single-family housing since 1971. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Elmhurst was downzoned in 1971, the rhetoric from homeowners was the same as the message promoted in racist Rockridge real estate ads 60 years prior. More apartments equal more poor people moving in. 

But the context leading up to the Elmhurst decision—and its outcome today—was different. Rockridge residents and developers ensured from its start that the neighborhood would remain exclusive. Much of it began as an enclave for Oakland’s upper class. When Rockridge was built, Oakland’s Black population was less than 2% of the city’s total. By the time Black people started moving to the city in large numbers, the neighborhood was well-established and too expensive for most people to move to. 

Elmhurst, on the other hand, began as a more accessible middle-class development and was in the throes of change by the 1970s. World War II had brought many Black residents into Oakland from the South, to work at the shipyards and other wartime jobs. Immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries were also moving to the city. Many of these new workers settled in West Oakland, but urban renewal and freeway construction there displaced thousands to East Oakland beginning in the 1950s. And as schools were forced to integrate in the following decades, many of the remaining white families fled to nearby suburbs. 

While the 1971 downzoning may have been white homeowners’ last-gasp attempt at keeping hold of their neighborhood, Elmhurst and its surroundings were already on track to becoming majority Latino and Black neighborhoods. 

It’s a special place, said Prescott Reavis, an East Oakland architect and planner. “When we talk about cultural richness in a city, that’s what East Oakland is; it’s rich in cultural resources, rich in its variety of housing stock, its diversity of neighborhoods.”

Reavis is part of the Black Cultural Zone, a coalition working to “build power, secure land, and direct more dollars to community-driven projects” in East Oakland. From his perspective, zoning is a tool that’s often been used to disempower those neighborhoods. “If you look at where garbage dumps and sewer plants are, it’s primarily in industrial zones and Black and brown neighborhoods,” Reavis said. 

Numerous studies have found high levels of air pollution in East Oakland—and resulting health problems and higher death rates because residential blocks and schools are smushed up against freeways and factories. Interstate 880 is among the California freeways with the heaviest truck traffic, and the AB&I foundry near the Coliseum is one of the county’s top polluters. Years ago, environmental activists thought they’d succeeded in getting the city to block a crematorium from opening on 98th Avenue, but the company later got permission from a judge to begin operating. 

“They’re burning bodies in our backyard,” said Keta Price, a planner with the East Oakland Collective. “Our district looks like shit. They’re polluting the hell out of us with these industrial uses, but we barely get jobs at those places and the money’s not coming back to us.” 

Reavis’ main concern about the upzoning proposal is that the policy could become another top-down decision that makes the wealthy wealthier, and changes neighborhoods without improving conditions for current residents. 

“If this proposal will elevate the participation of Black developers and Black and minority homeowners, then I’m in,” he said. “If this is another thing to make it seem like we’re on the forefront of planning policies, and another way of land-grabbing, then absolutely not.”

Reavis and others say any zoning change must come with programs to help current residents take advantage of the policy. This could include a fund for local, Black-led developers to acquire land and build housing, or it could involve subsidies and education for homeowners who want to add another unit to their house but don’t know where to start, or don’t have the savings needed to start a project. 

The Akoma Outdoor Market is one of the Black Cultural Zone’s initiatives to stem displacement and invest in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

“That vision of a more inclusive type of development is not going to happen automatically with zoning changes—it needs to be intentional,” said Sagehorn of East Bay For Everyone.

While members of the Rockridge Community Planning Council may have the money, professional backgrounds, and connections to hire a consultant to study the impacts of rezoning their neighborhood, it’s hardly typical for most community members and groups to pour resources into figuring out how a policy will affect their lives.

“Simply putting in place this zoning change is not, in my opinion, equity,” said City Councilmember Loren Taylor, who represents East Oakland’s District 6, at the Young Democrats forum. But Taylor voted for Kaplan’s proposal and said upzoning has great potential to reverse a racist legacy if done right.

“I can go to East Oakland”

Tracy Perron, a prospective customer of Deep Grocery Co-Op
Tracy Perron is worried about the impact of upzoning on her deep East Oakland neighborhood, if nothing is done to also alleviate cramped conditions and a lack of resources. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Tracy Perron began looking for a house to buy in Oakland a few years ago, all her friends warned her she’d never be able to afford her own place in the city where she was raised.

“I was like, sure I can—I can go to East Oakland,” she said. But even in the city’s less expensive neighborhoods, she found she was competing with cash offers. She eventually bought a house in Elmhurst, near 90th Avenue and the San Leandro border—the same neighborhood downzoned by the City Council in the 1970s. That policy left most of the blocks filled with one-story single-family houses—but they’re some of the only ones still obtainable for middle-class and first-time homebuyers in Oakland.

Perron grew up all over East Oakland, and her Black family was affected firsthand by racist housing policies like redlining, where banks used color-coded maps to deny people of color government-backed mortgages in white neighborhoods. When her parents, who were teachers, first moved to Oakland from the South in the early 1960s, they tried to buy a house on Skyline Boulevard, said Perron, “but they were told, ‘You’re a risk for a loan.’” 

Even when Perron’s parents rented, she said, “they always rented a house.” They wanted what many families still do, whether renters or buyers: a space of their own, where the kids can play out front or back. In Rockridge, homes are mostly owned by the people who live in them. In East Oakland, far more of the houses are occupied by renters.

That’s what’s “lost in debates,” said Bruce of East Bay Housing Organizations. “Oakland is a majority renter city, and many of those renters live in single-family homes. We need to make sure [upzoning] doesn’t open the door for demolition of those homes.”

In gentrifying neighborhoods, including parts of East Oakland, residents and tenant advocates are concerned that upzoning will encourage developers to raze the places where renters already live and build expensive apartments in their place. New buildings can’t be subject to rent control laws in California, so advocates fear a new zoning policy could lead to the removal of existing low-cost housing (though single-family homes can’t be rent-controlled either), in favor of new construction. And because larger projects are cheaper to build, some are concerned that whole blocks could be torn down to make way for complexes of apartment buildings. 

Groups like Bruce’s and the Oakland Tenants Union say rezoning cannot come at the cost of displacing existing renters. Kaplan’s proposal calls for a new zoning system that includes tenant protections, but what that’ll look like is not yet clear. East Bay Housing Organizations also wrote a letter to the City Council warning that any zoning change may need regulations ensuring new units are affordable, since Oakland has outpaced state requirements for market-rate construction but is deeply lagging on low-rent buildings

But housing experts say that East Oakland, like Rockridge, still won’t see dramatic change just because four-unit buildings are allowed.

“I think these housing battles get really heated, but let’s be real,” Bruce said. “These are all incremental changes. I don’t think we’ll see a flood of demolition—but at the same time, any one family who finds themselves displaced as a result of policy? That’s a real impact.”

While Berkeley has an ordinance limiting the demolition of occupied housing, and requiring a fee or a replacement low-income unit in some cases, Oakland has no such law. There is a state law, though, that requires developers to replace all rent-controlled units they demolish with equally affordable housing.

Councilmember Taylor’s concern, however, is not with developers rushing to tear down East Oakland. He fears the opposite: that East Oakland will be passed over, not getting to access the increased land value created by the policy.

“Folks aren’t going to be flocking to East Oakland when they’re looking at how they’re going to create new value and take advantage of these laws,” he said. “They’ll go to Rockridge, where they can get top dollar for the units that can be created.”

So will East Oakland be gentrified if it’s upzoned, or will it be neglected? On the surface, these concerns seem contradictory. But the fears come from the same place: a wariness of yet another policy that could strip Black Oaklanders and other communities of color of the power to determine the future of their own home.

In some ways East Oakland is already dense

Mention more apartments and more people, and some East Oakland residents cringe.

“It’s cramped, cramped, cramped here,” said Perron. “They’re not even cleaning the streets, and there’s nothing but liquor stores at major intersections. There’s no growth, no economy. The city hasn’t done right by all its members, so that’s where my distrust is coming from. Putting up another development to scrunch more people in is not going to help—we’ve got too many problems.”

According to census data, 94603 is more densely populated—around 11,000 people per square mile—than Rockridge’s 94618, where 7,100 people live within each square mile. 

Perron was not the only person who spoke to The Oaklandside who mentioned traffic congestion on residential blocks, which can make it feel dangerous to ride a bike or have kids play outside.

Upzoning “makes total sense to me as an advocate for affordable housing,” Price said. “Obviously that would increase the space for us to house people. But as a person who works in mobility justice, my worry starts going to the overcrowding of cars.” 

Reavis said there are questions that need to be answered as the Planning Department examines the fourplex idea. “Will the existing infrastructure be able to support this?” he said. “Will the road system be able to support four times as many people? Will the sewer system be able to support all these new toilets?” Oakland and other Bay Area cities are under a 22-year consent decree stemming from a federal lawsuit, requiring replacement of miles of faulty sewage lines.

However, most East Oaklanders acknowledge that plenty of people have added extra units onto their single-family houses already. Maybe they need the rental income, or they have a multi-generational family living at home and don’t want to share one spot. Right now what they’re doing is unpermitted, and rezoning could bring them above board.

“People are already living five families on top of each other,” said Price. 

Her own mom is building a (legal) accessory unit at her house, where Price currently lives too. Price is working toward buying her own house, and the new addition will help her mother build up her savings after her daughter leaves.

Oakland isn’t alone in upzoning push

Today’s fourplex push is not Oakland’s first foray into rezoning in recent years. About 15 years ago, the city rezoned its business and industrial districts, allowing more highrises in some spots and maintaining lower heights in others. Then planners embarked on a nearly three-year process that culminated in 2011 with new zoning regulations for every residential and commercial block of the city. At the time, Oakland’s zoning code was notoriously complex, often contradicting the vision laid out in the city plan. The new regulations included fewer, and clearer, zoning designations. 

In parts of the city, including much of Elmhurst and Rockridge, there was little change in how much was allowed to be built. On some main streets, taller, denser construction was permitted, and there were tweaks to many residential blocks. But most single-family neighborhoods stayed that way, if under a different name. 

“A major strategy of the General Plan includes providing stability to Oakland’s lower density residential neighborhoods while strategically directing development to major transit corridors like San Pablo Avenue and International Boulevard, the city’s BART stations and AC Transit hubs,” city planners said at the time.

Single family homes in Deep East Oakland.
Single-family homes in deep East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

If Oakland’s effort to rethink single-family zoning takes as long as the 2011 rezoning did, it may end up being an irrelevant change. A bill in the state legislature, SB 9, from State Sen. Toni Atkins, could require all California cities to allow single-family lots to be split in two or converted to duplexes—effectively allowing four units in place of one, plus accessory units. Rent-controlled and affordable housing are exempt under Atkins’s proposal. A similar bill looked poised to pass last year, but legislators ran out of time

California is not the only state—and Oakland is hardly the only city—to confront an unsavory history of exclusionary zoning and attempt to reverse the legacy by allowing small apartment buildings in more neighborhoods. Minneaopolis was the first major U.S. city to end single-family zoning in 2019, and most recently Berkeley resolved to do the same, inspiring Oakland. Researchers and advocates who thought these policy overhauls impossible just a few years ago now see upzoning as a sort of inevitability. 

For Price and Reavis of East Oakland, the most important lesson for the city is to listen to residents—to actively ask them, as staffers begin to earnestly consider what rezoning would look like in Oakland, what more housing would and could mean for their communities. 

Price said she has many minds about the proposal and sees potential for improving life for East Oakland residents. But, despite working for a prominent local organization on issues directly related to zoning, she wasn’t told about the council’s resolution until after it passed. 

“Let us know what’s going on along the way,” she said. “This is something they’ve heard over and over.” 

This story was updated after publication to clarify laws around demolition of existing housing in California.

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.