One Berkeley Resident's Fight to Desegregate the City

Dorothy Walker has spent decades working to eliminate housing discrimination. In February, the city council finally agreed.

2 minute read

April 1, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Chao Kusollerschariya / Shutterstock

Nathanael Johnson profiles Dorothy Walker, a Berkeley resident who, decades ago, undertook a fight against racist real estate covenants. As a white woman married to a Japanese-American, Walker witnessed the effects of internment and race-based policies in mid-century America, policies which reverberate to this day.

Despite federal efforts to eliminate housing segregation in the early 20th century, writes Johnson, cities found new ways to replace explicitly racist covenants with "ordinances that entrenched segregation by income and wealth instead, reserving certain parts of town for people who could afford their own house and a roomy yard." Walker has proposed eliminating single-family zoning for decades, but her proposals have always fallen on deaf ears. "I was basically a voice in the wilderness crying out for density," she says. "It was just so radical. It fell like a stone."

As the years wore on, Berkeley residents "moved to clamp down" on any efforts to revise zoning codes or increase density. "In 1973, Berkeley’s residents put what they called the “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance” on the ballot to make it harder to demolish old buildings and build new ones."

At 90, "Walker had not expected to live long enough to see Berkeley end single-family zoning." When the city council voted to eliminate single-family zoning in February of this year, the move broke open a decades-old fight and vindicated advocates like Walker. However, "the February vote merely put the City Council on the record as supporting the reforms. To turn [Councilmember and Vice Mayor Lori] Droste’s resolution into reality, and end single-family zoning a century after Berkeley created it, council members must grapple with the details."

"Housing experts agree that loosening zoning won’t bring down Berkeley’s stratospheric housing prices." According to Karen Chapple, city planning professor at UC Berkeley, "There’s no hope; it will never be affordable again.' But making it possible for more people to live in the city, she said, would put less pressure on residents to flee to surrounding cities and tamp down the growth of sprawling exurbs."

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