UC Berkeley tells tenants of 112-year-old rent-controlled building they must leave

1921 Walnut St. was built in 1909. UC Berkeley wants to tear it down for a student housing complex and is asking the 12 tenants to leave. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

UC Berkeley officials on Tuesday night informed the dozen or so tenants at 1921 Walnut St. that it has decided to go ahead and tear down a 112-year-old rent-controlled building right across from campus in order to use the land as part of a planned massive housing project for transfer students.

The university informed the tenants in a letter that no one would be evicted during the pandemic or while the “state-ordered eviction moratorium or a city of Berkeley shelter-in-place order is in effect.” That means tenants would not have to move before the end of August at the earliest, according to the letter.

The letter also included a financial incentive: if the tenants work with a relocation group hired by Cal, Autotemp, they could be paid $54,000 —or even more —to vacate their apartments.

“The total value of each tenant’s relocation package could easily reach six figures, depending on their financial situation, said Dan Mogulof, an assistant vice chancellor and a Cal spokesman. “The university is ready and able to be flexible and accommodating. We can and will balance the needs of thousands of students who require housing, and the needs of these nine tenants.”

Some of the people living in the eight apartments (two are vacant) have resided in the building for more than 25 years and do not want to leave. A handful has been there for at least 10 years. (it is unclear exactly how many people are currently living there. In June there were 12. Mogulof said the university thinks it is now 10).

“The word ‘generous’ there is a very manipulative use of that word,” said Paul Wallace, who has lived at 1921 Walnut St. since 2015. “UC is saying ‘look how great we are.’ Unfortunately, the reality is different. They are going to evict us, destroy our homes and maybe compensate us for 42 months.”

John Selawsky, a member of both the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and the Berkeley Tenants’ Union, said even a large payment won’t make up for the loss of living in a rent-controlled unit.

“That’s a lot of money over time with the difference between market-rate and rent-controlled units,” he said. “What they term as generous doesn’t make anyone whole.”

The decision to tear down the historic structure, which the university acquired in July, has been long expected, even though UC Berkeley officials have consistently stated that its acquisition did not necessarily mean the tenants would be evicted.

“We were waiting for that shoe to drop,” said Selawsky. “It was just a matter of time.”

UC Berkeley has a huge student housing crisis

UC Berkeley is facing a severe housing shortage for students. It currently houses the lowest percentage of its students in the UC system. In 2017, Chancellor Carol Christ announced an initiative to change that by building housing for 10,000 students — a goal that has since expanded to constructing 11,700 beds for students in the next 15 years. The plan laid out 13 sites that would be studied as potential housing spots.

The land across from the campus, once slated for a hotel, was identified as a good one to develop. The project was put on the fast track when the Helen Diller Family Foundation offered to pay for the entire project and then gift it back to the university.

The tenants at 1921 Walnut St. were the first to identify who was making the gift. Jackie Safier, Helen Diller’s daughter, is representing the foundation, according to documents the tenants got by filing a public records act request.

The Helen Diller Family Foundation, with assets of more than $1 billion, has long been a generous contributor to UC Berkeley and other UC institutions, donating hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. It is funded with money made by Helen’s husband, Sanford Diller, who started a development company, the Prometheus Real Estate Group in San Mateo in 1965. It became the largest private apartment building owner in the Bay Area, controlling 15,000 units valued at more than $2.3 billion, according to various news articles. Both Sanford and Helen Diller were UC Berkeley graduates.

In a website set up to publicize UC Berkeley’s attempts to evict those living at 1921 Walnut St., the tenants called Safier a “notorious landlord and heiress.” They pointed out that Prometheus, where Safier serves as president, donated nearly $1 million to oppose Proposition 21, the Rent Affordability Act, which voters defeated in November. If would have expanded rent control around the state.

Prometheus states on its website that Sanford Diller “saw an opportunity to change the impersonal nature of the apartment industry.” The company believes in the importance of “connecting with others.” It states: “We create places, homes and neighborhoods where people belong.”

Berkeley law requiring replacement of demolished rent-controlled units doesn’t apply

people holding signs about eviction
Tenants at 1921 Walnut St. Photo: 1921 Walnut St Association.

Berkeley has a law requiring the replacement of any rent-controlled units if they are destroyed. However, as a state institution, UC Berkeley does not have to obey local laws. Cal could voluntarily take that step, but that action is “unlikely,” Kyle Gibson of UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies told Berkeleyside in 2020.

The Berkeley City Council,  the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, The Berkeley Tenants Union, and the ASUC, the main UC Berkeley student association, have criticized UC Berkeley’s plans to eliminate the eight rent-controlled apartments. The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has condemned the loss of historic buildings. Opponents of the project have led protests in front of the apartment complex and in front of the Broadway offices of the university president in Oakland.

Natalie Logusch, one of those living at Walnut Street, criticized UC Berkeley officials for not agreeing to meet with the tenants. She said the ASUC, the student association, had tried to arrange a meeting between the two sides as well as the city of Berkeley, but Cal declined.

Mogulof said the relocation company is more suited to talk to the tenants than UC Berkeley staff.

“If campus employees had the necessary expertise to support the tenants’ relocation needs and answer their relocation-related questions, we would certainly meet with them,” he wrote in an email. “But, we don’t have that expertise, and that’s why we hired one of the best relocation firms in the business.”

In addition, there will be a 45-day public comment period and public meetings after the EIR is completed sometime around March, said Mogulof.

Logusch said she did not agree that Berkeley laws could not be applied to UC Berkeley. For one, the project requires community input and Cal’s refusal to meet with the tenants shows it is not doing that.

“It’s not a done deal that Berkeley laws aren’t relevant,” said Logusch. “We will do everything and anything to save this building and save our homes.”

The 1921 Walnut Street Association has hired a lawyer to help and has established a legal defense fund.

The project’s size was reduced in response to public input

The project, as originally conceived, was to be called the Gateway Student Housing Project. The 850-bed complex, complete with student housing, retail shops, an on-site gym, a dining hall and various study centers, was to be built on property bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street, and Berkeley Way.

The complex has been resized and renamed. It is now referred to as the Helen Diller Anchor House, better known as Anchor House. After public input, the project was reduced to beds for 700 students, said Mogulof But the addition of the land under 1921 Walnut St., means the complex can house 760 students and offer larger rooms, said Mogulof.

Since the Anchor House complex will be constructed to last 100 years, the addition of the 1921 Walnut St. land means an additional 7,500 students will be housed, he said.

Project means the destruction of 3 properties with a deep history in Berkeley

The construction will involve the demolition of a number of historic and old properties. In addition to 1921 Walnut St., which was built in 1909 by William B. Heywood, 1925 Walnut. St, a traditional brown shingle home owned by UC Berkeley, will be torn down. The university garage on Oxford Street, designed as the Richfield Oil Service by the architect Walter Ratcliffe in 1930, will also be demolished.

In the letter sent to tenants, UC Berkeley asked that they confer with Autotemp so the relocation company can “ discuss with you the full array of options and relocation benefits that are on offer.” UC Berkeley also outlined the “minimum” it will offer.

“At a minimum, your relocation benefits package will include:

  • Assistance with locating comparable and available housing that is nearby and maintains your standard of living. We have agreed to consider each unit in 1921 Walnut to be a two-bedroom apartment. This ensures that every tenant will have an opportunity to relocate to a comparable home at the university’s expense.
  • A lump sum or reimbursement for reasonable moving expenses.
  • Our rental assistance provision provides you with a payment equal to 42 months of the difference between your new rent and your current rent, or the difference between your new rent and 30% of your total household income.  Whichever would provide you with greater benefit. For example, a tenant household is currently paying $1,200 per month for rent and utilities.  If the cost increase between their new comparable unit and their current unit is $1,300 per month then that difference would be multiplied by 42 months, which would result in total rental assistance of $54,600.  Should the tenant provide household income information that qualifies the household for a greater benefit, that is the benefit that will be provided.
  • Option for a one-time, lump sum payment equal to your total rental assistance payment to use towards purchasing a home in the community of your choice.”

UC Berkeley will present the Anchor House plan, including the use of the land under 1921 Walnut St., to the Board of Regents in July, according to the letter. Previous communications have said construction could begin in the third quarter of 2021.

“UC’s tactic all along has been to intimidate us,” said Logusch. But “what the public wants does matter.”