Fire-damaged building to stay rent-controlled after Berkeley City Council meeting

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Berkeley City Council voted at its Tuesday meeting to support the decision to restore rent-controlled units of a property damaged in a 2012 fire after concerns that the landlord would replace them with higher-rent housing.

The city’s department of planning and development announced at the meeting that the landlord of 2227 Dwight Way, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, intends to rebuild but not completely demolish the six units in question. As a result, the building will continue to be rent-controlled, and former tenants can receive relocation assistance from their landlord.

The announcement addressed the concerns of those who appealed the decision by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board to approve a permit for what was originally believed to be the property’s demolition in June.

According to a city ordinance, landlords who demolish fire-damaged units and build new ones — as long as they are not at fault — are exempt from a fee that normally applies to developers who do not include a set amount of affordable housing in newly built units.

The appeal, however, has sparked concerns about what it means for a landlord to be “at fault.”

The appellants alleged the landlord was at fault due to negligence, stating in their appeal letter that he failed to maintain a functioning smoke alarm system. Although Reddy could not be reached for comment, his legal representative, Andrew Cohn, said at the meeting that the alarms were working upon previous inspection in December 2011.

“I didn’t wake up to smoke detectors, smoke alarms — my room was completely filled with smoke,” said appellant Adam Bolt, a UC Berkeley alumnus and a former tenant, in a public comment. “I pulled the fire alarm on the first floor, and nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.”

But city law does not specify whether negligence qualifies as fault, according to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. The council plans to discuss how to clarify this policy at a December meeting, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Additionally, the planning department confirmed at the meeting that a relocation ordinance applies to the tenants ousted from the building by the fire, Arreguin said. This ordinance gives tenants the right to receive payments from their landlord and pay the same rent rate they paid before the fire if they return.

The situation might be further complicated, however, by settlements between Reddy and some of the tenants, Arreguin said. Cohn said at the meeting that tenants had already brought forth claims regarding relocation expenses, which have been resolved.

“(A fire) could happen to anyone,” said appellant and UC Berkeley student Luis Amezcua, who was not a tenant but became involved in the appeal after talking to Bolt. “One moment will be fine, then the next thing you know, we can lose all of our stuff.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected].