OpinionOpinion

Op-ed: Stop developers from demolishing rent-controlled buildings without replacing them

Developers would like to be able to tear down perfectly fine rent controlled buildings and replace them with fancy apartments for dot-com commuters.

On Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council will be deciding whether to allow a developer to tear down a rent-controlled building at 2631 Durant Ave. that was relatively affordable housing for students until last year.

One problem: our current Demolition Ordinance says you can’t tear down rent controlled units, ever, unless they are pretty much uninhabitable, and unless their loss is mitigated by replacing them with permanently affordable units. Apparently, the Zoning Board (ZAB) decided that law doesn’t apply to 2631 Durant.

This proposed demolition is not about one building. Speculators are targeting Berkeley’s aging housing stock, trying to undue decades of public policy that protects affordable housing, to cash in on the high-end demand created by the tech boom. The Council’s decision on the appeal to this project (Item 21, November 17) will be a set of policy decisions that could have far reaching consequences.

First, Council must decide if the developer’s offer of a rent-control-like structure for limiting rent increases – “voluntary rent control”– is legal and enforceable, when the Rent Board Attorney clearly told ZAB it is neither during the hearing.

Then they shall decide if it is good public policy, and in accordance with the purpose of the Demolition Ordinance and its voter-approved predecessor, the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, to say that 3 below-market-rate units can be mitigation for the loss of 18 rent-controlled ones. One-for-one replacement of the lost rent controlled units with permanently affordable ones is the standard that community organizations, including Sierra Club, Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, NAACP, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, and the Berkeley Tenants Union have been asking for in the event that a rent controlled building has to be demolished.

I imagine the public would also like Council to clearly state that it isn’t OK for a developer to tear down walls and cut holes in the roof while simultaneously arguing that he cannot afford to repair the building. Rewarding a property owner for the intentional destruction of his building is not just a bad precedent, it is also a dangerous one.

It is my hope that the fact that the ASUC is a party to the appeal should also inform Council’s decision, since the code also states, “The proposed changes would not result in a reduction of housing supply essential to the well-being or housing needs of the City or of persons residing in the neighborhood in the vicinity of the building involved.” Students need older, more affordable rental housing near campus! 2631 Durant was 100% rented by students when the developer applied to tear it down.

I hope Berkeleyside readers will stand with the Berkeley Tenants Union in asking Council to correctly interpret the Demolition Ordinance as prohibiting demolition of rent controlled units in all but the most extreme cases. If the City Council allows this demolition to go forward, the law prohibiting unmitigated demolition of rent controlled apartments means nothing anymore, and all of Berkeley is at risk of being bulldozed to make way for luxury housing.

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Katherine Harr is a member of the Berkeley Tenants' Union. She is also an elected representative to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and is a landlord herself.