Why the New Sequoia Building Matters to Tenants

On Thursday, July 25, the Zoning Adjustments Board will decide whether to issue a building permit for the New Sequoia Building. The original Sequoia Building at Haste and Telegraph was destroyed by fire in 2011, wiping out almost forty rent-controlled apartments.

Unfortunately, state law prohibits the construction of new rent-controlled units. But ZAB has the authority to put important conditions on the New Sequoia building permit. They can tell the owner, Kenneth Ent, to make the units permanently affordable, or at the very least, refuse to exempt the building from the usual mitigation fee. The fee of twenty thousand dollars per unit is for the Housing Trust Fund, but ZAB exempt the Lakireddy family from paying the fee for 2227 Dwight, also destroyed by fire. That permit is being appealed.

The Trust Fund uses mitigation fees to build new low-cost housing. However, since each unit of new housing costs about four hundred and ten thousand dollars to build, including permanently affordable housing in the building may be a better solution.

It seems some ZAB members may disagree that they can impose conditions on permits. Yet a paragraph of the ordinance that guides their actions states that the Board “may attach such conditions to any Use Permit as it deems reasonable or necessary to achieve the purposes of this Ordinance, and which otherwise promote the municipal health, safety and welfare.” (italics added).

The restitution of forty affordable housing units surely promotes municipal welfare. It can be argued that Mr. Ent is obligated to provide them, and that doing so is reasonable. Consider:

  • The fire started in the elevator control box. Many Sequoia tenants have said that the elevator was frequently out of order or working poorly. According to SF Gate, the last time the elevator was inspected was in August 2010 and the permit for the elevator had expired. Had these problems been addressed, the fire might have been avoided.
  • The building lacked a sprinkler system. Sprinklers might have limited the scope of fire (from whatever cause), and saved the building. Furthermore, Mr. Ent could have recouped the expense of this improvement through legally sanctioned rent increases.
  • Tenants also had complained about problems with fire escapes and smoke detectors, according to media reports.

Berkeley Tenants Union has not taken an official position, but if you think tenants need to persuade ZAB that affordable housing at the New Sequoia will promote the City’s welfare, and that ZAB Commissioners should exercise their power to mandate this, please:

  • Come to the ZAB meeting on Thursday, July 25th, 7:00 PM at Old City Hall, and tell them how you feel. Contact BTU members at 510-982-6696 for more information.

For various reasons, we have been losing rent-controlled units in Berkeley. Let’s make sure that these losses are compensated through permanently affordable housing.

ZAB application: