‘Canary in the coal mine’: Berkeley residents protest for affordable housing

Berkeley Protest
Maria Young/Staff

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About 25 individuals gathered, held signs and spoke outside 1921 Walnut St. on Monday as part of a protest in opposition to UC Berkeley’s plan to buy the rent-controlled apartment building.

UC Berkeley is in the process of purchasing the building at 1921 Walnut St. to build new student housing on the west side of campus. Tenants, however, said the building includes rent-controlled apartments and are concerned about a decrease in available rent-controlled housing stock in the city, as well as being displaced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson previously told The Daily Californian that campus is only currently planning to purchase the building and that residents can expect to remain in the building for several months.

“I have lived here since 1989,” said Davone Riddick, a tenant at 1921 Walnut St. “This apartment really means a lot to me because I grew up here and I have a lot of history here. It’s really sentimental, and hearing that this building would be torn down really hurt me.”

According to long-term tenant Natalie Logusch, the building embodies 111 years of Berkeley history. She added that the community in the building and its history have played a defining role in who she is.

Andrea Henson, a law clerk at the Eviction Defense Center, said she thinks now is an especially important time to stand up for tenant rights, as there is a national pandemic, a “housing crisis” and a state of emergency declared by both the city and the state.

“We must demand that this group of individuals — the regents, who are supposed to be public officers — follow the orders of our governor,” Henson said during the protest. “Being a public officer means, in this country at least, that we listen to the people, that we protect those we’ve been put in place to serve.”

Another tenant, Paul Wallace, said the purchase and demolition of the building could set a dangerous precedent. He added that in Berkeley, if a developer wants to rebuild on a property that contains rent-controlled units, they would have to replace each unit with a unit of comparable size and rent. The UC system, however, is exempt from this requirement.

According to Logusch, the 1921 Walnut St. building is the “canary in the coal mine.” She added that if UC Berkeley is able to purchase the building without replacing the rent-controlled building stock, it would mean the university could do the same thing in other cities where it has campuses.

“From our point of view, we get kicked out of our homes. From the bigger point of view, the city will lose the rent control housing stock,” Wallace said. “It has greater implications across the state because this is only eight units, but if they were to do the same thing in a 100 or 200-unit complex, you would lose all that housing stock.

The tenants currently have the support of Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilmember Kate Harrison, as well as local tenant and housing organizations. According to J.T. Harechmak, a legislative assistant for Harrison, the City Council has drafted a resolution asking UC Berkeley to preserve the property and local rent control status of its tenants.

Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Arreguín, said the mayor is committed to affordable housing in Berkeley and does so through the three “P’s”: production, protection and preservation.

“When it comes to the case of 1921 Walnut St., the university is following one of the P’s: production. But, it’s doing so at the expense of the other two P’s: preservation and protection,” Elgstrand said during the protest. “We simply do not accept that.”

In a statement read at the protest, ASUC External Affairs Vice President Derek Imai said he thinks it is important for students to recognize the impact they have on the existing residential community in Berkeley. He added that 1921 Walnut St. is “as much part of the Berkeley community as UC Berkeley is.”

Logusch echoed this and said she thinks it is very “cool” to have UC Berkeley students as neighbors.

“Our neighborhood is changing, and we’ve lived through that. We’re OK with new housing and new developments but not at the expense of affordable housing,” Logusch said during the protest.We want Berkeley to be a place where everyone can live, not just the people who live in these new buildings.”

Maria Young is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.