Lawsuit prolongs struggle over 2631 Durant Ave. complex

Jasmany Flores/Staff

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A recent lawsuit has prolonged the multi-year gridlock between a building owner, local housing advocates and the city that has caused an 18-unit apartment complex just a block south of campus to remain boarded up and abandoned for two years.

The property at 2631 Durant Ave. contains a few vestiges of the residence it used to be: Neat, curling script painted in black marks the address and apartment numbers, and cast-iron lanterns hang above the doorways.

But today, the lanterns would only illuminate a lawn overgrown with weeds and filled with litter, and walls covered with spots of black paint, filth and graffiti.

“I pass it on the way down to Telegraph —  it looks like a crack house,” said 2016 campus graduate Ryan Atkinson, who lives two doors away at the Theta Delta Chi fraternity house.

Meanwhile, finding housing continues to be “extremely difficult” for UC Berkeley students, according to Matthew Lewis, chair of the ASUC Housing Commission. With expanding enrollment at UC Berkeley, steadily rising rents and the lowest percentage of campus housing of any campus in the UC system, it has never been harder for students to find housing in Berkeley.

The ASUC became involved with the 2631 Durant Ave. project after the city of Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board initially approved the application by the building’s current owner, Cliff Orloff, to demolish the rent-controlled complex on the grounds that it was unsafe and that rehabilitating the property without rebuilding it would be economically inefficient.

The ASUC, along with the Berkeley Tenant’s Union, filed an appeal of the board’s decision in July of 2015, in the wake of the approval of Orloff’s plan to replace the original 18 rent-controlled units, 17 of which had been rented to students, with 56 units not subject to rent control.

“We don’t inherently oppose tearing-down and replacing the building,” Lewis said in an email of the project that would add 38 housing units to the city of Berkeley. “However, we do oppose incentivizing landlords to destroy habitable, low-cost housing in order to try to make a profit.”

The last time the units in the Durant Avenue complex were rented out in the 2013-14 school year, they were rented for only 65 percent of the city’s median rent. At the beginning of the year, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley was $1,795, and the median rent for a studio apartment was $1,450.

Former residents, local housing advocates and the building owner agree that the apartments had been in disrepair. Orloff said the building had not been renovated in 25 years when he bought it in July 2012.

He added that the building was in need of replaced electric wiring and plumbing and had withstood termite damage to more than half of its walls.

“It was just horrible, horrible housing, and it couldn’t be made better without (demolishing) the building,” Orloff said.

It is undecided exactly how much the new units would rent for. The units will go for market rates, and the fact that they would not be subject to rent control means that tenants of the building may see their rent increase over time.

After both Orloff and the ASUC appealed the Zoning Adjustments Board’s decision, City Council recently approved Orloff’s demolition proposal on the condition that he abide by a city ordinance passed last spring. The ordinance requires property owners who demolish rent-controlled units to pay a fee to the city to construct affordable, rent-controlled housing elsewhere.

But Orloff filed a pending lawsuit June 26 challenging this ordinance and the fees it requires, meaning it could be years before progress is made on the 2631 Durant Avenue property.

For the time being, the litter, cobwebs and graffiti will continue to collect in the old apartment building, and Berkeley students will keep scrambling for housing.

Derek Chin, who just graduated from UC Berkeley in the spring, only ever received one offer of the 10 to 15 apartments he applied for each year he looked for housing in Berkeley.

“(Finding housing) was always a big panic, and it’s always last minute when you’re dealing with finals,” Chin said. “It just sucks.”

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.