This year, Berkeley Tenants Union held two endorsement events. In the spring, we shared a meeting with Berkeley Progressive Alliance and Berkeley Citizens Action to select candidates, and in the fall we shared a meeting with BCA to make endorsements on measures.
This is the first year the reconstituted BTU has done endorsements on measures, because this year there are several measures important to renters – particularly Measure AA (relocation funds for evicted renters) and Measure U1 (tax big landlords to fund affordable housing). Results of our ballot measures vote will be posted tomorrow.
Vote for four. Vote for only four — no ranked choice in this race. Vote for the CALI Slate chosen at the Berkeley Tenant Convention!! All are BTU Members: Christina Murphy, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Leah Simon-Weisberg, Igor Tregub http://berkeleyrentboard.org/
Mayor: Jesse Arreguin
Jesse used to chair the Rent Board, was chosen at the Tenant Convention multiple times, and help pass recent rules for renters, including:
2016 Tenant Convention Your tenants union has convened other progressive leaders to begin planning the 2016 convention to elected a pro-tenant slate for Rent Board. If you are interesting in running for election to the Board, or in helping to plan the annual gathering, drop us a line or keep an eye on the tenant convention webpage: http://berkeleytenantsconvention.net/
Developers Forum Shows Possible Bias from Zoning Commissioner Housing policy wonks in Berkeley were all abuzz after a Berkeleyside article about a forum on development – because none of them heard about this forum until the article. The Urban Land Institute, one of those nonprofits that pays their top executives $300,000 – $400,000 a year, sponsored the forum. The institute’s website proudly displays their “corporate partners”: developers, real estate firms, and the banks that lend them money. One Zoning Commissioner was a presenter: “Cities also have a financial bias against housing; they prefer retail and office buildings that generate taxes, rather than housing that demands schools and services, she said. One of the biggest issues are the legal challenges to large projects, said Pinkston. Environmental reviews are used to delay development rather than to actually consider the impact of a project on a community, she said. Extra litigation adds to the cost of building housing, which pushes up rents, she said. Every time a housing project is delayed because of litigation, it contributes to climate change, said Pinkston.” http://www.berkeleyside.com/2016/01/25/housing-forum-a-good-development-climate-in-berkeley/
Artists Warehouse Shut Down By Oakland “The building was previously managed by Madison Park Financial, a real estate company owned by John Protopappas, a close friend of Mayor Libby Schaaf. Madison Park Financial withdrew from managing 1919 Market Street last year and was replaced by a company called 1919 Bayside, which is run by San Francisco real estate entrepreneur Danny Haber. …last year another company run by Haber, The Negev, was sued in San Francisco over alleged wrongful evictions to push out rent-controlled tenants and use their apartments for tech bunk houses.” http://www.eastbayexpress.com/SevenDays/archives/2016/01/28/dozens-of-renters-lose-homes-as-city-closes-1919-market-street-warehouse-in-oakland
Residents Get 72 Hours to Move
“Singer said the company will abide by all the laws in regards to tenants’ rights to return to the complex upon completion of the renovation and units will be priced at whatever market rate the law allows.” http://www.ktvu.com/news/83415325-story
Berkeley Tenants and the students of the ASUC filed an appeal last summer to stop the demolition of 18 rent-controlled units on Durant. Berkeley’s City Council finally heard the appeal on December 1st, but just sent the decision back to the Zoning Board with instructions for the volunteer board to pay close attention to several issues in the appeal as well as a lengthy economic report submitted by the Rent Board.
Both the ASUC and BTU had dozens of speakers present to highlight various aspects of the problem, and emphasize that this would be a far-reaching policy decision for the Council, not just about this one project. The Council seemed particularly swayed by a letter from a former student tenant. But in the end, there wasn’t even that much deliberation, and no decision, just a remand.
On the one hand, BTU is pleased that the Council did not uphold approval of the project, because this would be the first time in history that our city would agree that a developer can’t make a profit by rehabilitating an older building instead of tearing it down. On the other hand, it would be nice to see our elected leaders stand up for affordable student housing. BTU had hoped the Council might chastise the developer for encouraging damage to his own building in order to claim he could not afford to fix it.
It is not yet known when the ZAB (Zoning Board) will hear the appeal. In the meantime, the 4×4 Committee, which is where the Rent Board meets with the City Council, discussed changes to allow more demolitions while protecting tenants and creating affordable housing.
“In approving the demolition permit, the ZAB agreed with the owner’s financial projections that it could not make a fair rate of return on its investment if it were to rehabilitate the building in its existing configuration — a notion contested by Pamela Webster, Lisa Stephens and Matthew Lewis in an appeal on behalf of the Associated Students of the University of California. The trio noted, moreover, that the owner allowed the building to deteriorate by keeping it vacant and inviting the Berkeley Fire Department to do training exercises there in late 2014, which involved cutting holes in the roof.…
Dozens of speakers warned that upholding the demolition permit would set a dangerous precedent. They warned that it would encourage landlords to pay exorbitant prices for rent-controlled buildings and let them go to waste while expecting the city to guarantee them a good return by allowing them to tear down the buildings and build larger ones with market-rate apartments.” http://www.contracostatimescom/breaking-news/ci_29192392/berkeley-council-sends-permit-demolish-rent-controlled-building
Zoning Board Approved Kennedy Bait-and-Switch A while ago, infamous Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy (Panoramic) got approval for a residential hotel which was to house folks making less than 120% of area median. The other day, Zoning allowed him to change the project to tiny studio apartments (300 square feet) with no parking. Kennedy will make two of the 22 units at 2711 Shattuck affordable to 120% AMI, and two affordable to folks making 50% of Area Median Income. The other 18 will be market rate. Commissioner Denise Pinkerton was particularly vocal, condemning other ZAB members for calling for more affordable units. http://www.berkeleyside.com/2015/12/14/berkeley-zoning-board-approves-new-units-on-telegraph-shattuck/
Students Call for Tight Limits on Vacation Rentals “Research has shown that short-term and vacation rentals increase the costs of housing by reducing the supply of affordable housing available on the market…. If City Council decides to legalize short-term and vacation rentals, such as those found on Airbnb, then it must adequately regulate them in order to protect the city’s supply of affordable housing. The proposal put forward by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Lori Droste, while a good start, would fail to adequately regulate short-term and vacation rentals so that they do not reduce the supply of affordable housing in Berkeley.” http://www.dailycal.org/2015/06/08/protect-housing-costs-increase-regulation-of-short-term-rentals/
Thanks to BTU Members Who Sent in Most of These Stories
The Windfall Profits Tax on High Rents (Robin Hood) “In Berkeley, activists are in the early stage of advocating for a so-called “windfall profits tax,” which would increase the business license tax for larger property owners and thus generate revenue that could be invested into affordable housing. “This money is being extracted from tenants for the benefit of people who own real estate, and it’s windfall profits,” explained Stephen Barton, former housing department director for the City of Berkeley, who is pushing for the windfall tax. “We’re going to take some of [the money] that’s being extracted from the community … and use it to mitigate some of the harms of the system.” http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/how-east-bay-tenants-get-displaced/Content?oid=4216802
SF Supervisors Want to Fix Airbnb Law “The legislation would prohibit all tenants or homeowners, regardless of whether or not they live in their house or apartment full-time, from renting out their spare space for more than 90 days a year. If they did, neighbors would have the right to sue them. The legislation would extend the existing 90-day limit from entire homes to smaller spaces.” http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/2-supervisors-want-to-tighten-up-law-regulating-6153957.php
New York City Enforcing Vacation Rentals Law “New York’s investigators have cited over 7,000 fire and building code violations, shut down over 200 short-term apartments and sued several operators — ending an additional 250 short-term rentals — over the last nine years, according to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. With Airbnb and other websites sparking a short-term rental boom, some lawmakers now want to triple the illegal-hotel investigation staff and have it go beyond answering complaints to scour the web for suspect listings.” http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/03/28/in-nyc-an-unusual-task-force-fights-home-as-hotel-rentals
Because of the appeal of the Zoning Board ruling, tenants who lost almost everything in the 2012 fire at 2227 Dwight Way will be given relocation benefits and the units, once rebuilt, will remain under rent control. City Council voted to uphold the ZAB ruling, but “clarified” that previous tenants have the right to reoccupy the apartments at the previous rent-controlled rates. The units will remain under rent control, but if the old tenants don’t move back in, new rents can be set at market.
The appeal challenged the ZAB decision that the owners, the infamous Lakireddy family, would not have to pay the affordable housing mitigation fee. At issue was the possibility that the owners were at fault for the extend of the fire damage because smoke detectors and fire alarms may not have sounded, and the fire may have been caused by a faulty water heater.
Because of the appeal, the City Council also plans to clarify what constitutes “fault” when properties destroyed by fire are exempt from city fees like the affordable housing mitigation fee. In the appeal, it was suggested that city staff only looks for arson and does not consider negligence when determining fault.
Several BTU members wrote to the City Council in support of the appeal, and many tenant advocates spoke at the meeting.
According to Inside Bay Area, Council also voted to make rental housing inspection safety reports from the Dwight property public documents.
Tenants from the building on Dwight partly destroyed by fire are asking for support on October 29. Renters and friends from 2227 Dwight, owned by Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the famous Berkeley landlord who plead guilty to federal charges about immigration fraud, transporting a minor for sex and tax evasion, are appealing the Zoning Board ruling that allows the owner to rebuild without paying mitigation fees. At issue is whether the owner was at fault for the extent of the fire because the smoke alarms may have been disconnected.
This is from BTU member Luis Amezcua:
The tenants of 2227 Dwight Way, on March 8, 2013, lost most, if not all, their personal possessions due to the fire that happened that night. The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) approved a use permit to reconstruct the building, but there are some uncertainties that need to be addressed before the reconstruction can begin. For clarification, the appeal does not object to the reconstruction to the building, since it would remove a blight from the neighborhood and provide needed housing.
The ZAB was not fully informed of 2227 Dwight, and were unsure as to whether the fee and other mitigations applied. Even with the testimony of one tenant about the fire and the owner’s negligence, Staff determined that, because the fire was not arson, it was accidental. Staff failed to fully analyze the issue of fault, and restricted themselves between two possibilities (either arson or accidental) when making their determination; however, there is evidence that suggests that the landlord is fault due to negligence. The fire report states that “the building’s fire alarm system was not sounding when fire units arrived at the scene and was not heard sounding by firefighters at any point during the incident”, and that “the full circumstances surrounding the failure of the fire alarm system are still under investigation”. Tenants testify that the landlord disabled the fire alarm system due to false alarms, and it is a factor that needs to be considered when determining fault. Furthermore, there is still pending litigation between some of the former tenants and the property owner, with the question of who’s at fault being key. A few of the former tenants received settlement payments from the property owners – something that wouldn’t happen if this was an open and shut case where the property owner clearly was not at fault.
The ZAB’s decision on 2227 Dwight Way encourages owners of older housing to not adequately maintain their properties by creating unsafe housing which result in fire incidents. When a building is burned down, the owner can put the new units at market rate, lowering the amount of affordable housing in Berkeley, and allowing owners to avoid the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee. All we ask is that the Council either require affordable housing to be built on site, an in-lieu payment be made to the Housing Trust Fund, or staff thoroughly investigate the issue of fault and remand this project back to the Zoning Adjustments Board with sufficient information so that they can make the proper findings (including the determination of fault).
City Council hears the appeal on October 29 and the tenants are asking for support at the meeting.
Berkeley has been expediting building permits and cutting fees for developers, saying our town desperately needs housing. One policy that some see as quite promising would make it easier to add a legal in-law unit on an existing property. But when it comes to low-cost housing for students, policymakers appear to be swayed by pressures from existing homeowners, because students are known to be noisy and make a mess, they say.
In fact, the initial legislation on mini-dorms approved by the Council in January seems to point to the sort of problems that cannot be anticipated by neighbors or Zoning Commissioners unless they make assumptions about the future behavior of possible tenants, perhaps unfairly: “Such buildings tend to impair the quiet enjoyment of the surrounding neighborhoods by creating trash and litter, creating excess parking demand, and being the location of numerous loud and unruly parties.”
In July, the City Council began work on an ordinance that would curb proliferation of the so-called “mini-dorms” by requiring a public hearing for new construction with six or more bedrooms. The ordinance would only impact certain neighborhoods – the ones close to campus, according to the Daily Cal.
It seems to me that instead of regulating potential threats to civil society based on assumptions about young people, the Council might do better to look into why existing housing code is not enforced at existing properties. Several students said they would welcome more scrutiny of their housing, according to the Daily Cal: “We don’t feel safe, because we are in an attic that has no fire escape… We are a lot of people living on top of each other with no fire escape or anything — with no smoke detectors either — so in that sense, we feel really unsafe.”
I Urge Anyone In The Above Situation to Contact Code Enforcement! There are existing laws to protect you, and you may be entitled to a rent decrease too – ask at the Rent Board. Stand up for your own safety!
Students, please join BTU at our next Potluck, August 14.
As one commenter on Berkeleyside put it, “We have codes up the wazoo, often unenforced by the City and ignored by some property owner who make a living exploiting students.”