COVID-19 exacerbates existing issues in Berkeley housing market

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Lisi Ludwig/File
The Bay Area already has one of the highest costs of housing in the nation, which is only exacerbated by the number of UC Berkeley students in need of housing close to campus. However, despite housing prices decreasing with students leaving as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions being placed on landlords, Berkeley Tenants Union secretary Matthew Lewis alleged that landlords have been breaking the city's laws.

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Updated 3/13/21: This article has been updated to reflect additional information about the tenant’s claim.

Updated 3/16/21: This article has been updated and corrected.

When a Berkeley tenant’s roommate, a student at UC Berkeley, left the city a month before the pandemic unfolded, the tenant decided to renew the lease on their rent-controlled apartment. The tenant said they thought they could find another roommate, and they reckoned it would be hard to find a cheaper place to live.

But as the pandemic stripped the city of much of its student population, the anonymous tenant, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of retaliation, was unable to find a roommate. The cost they spent on rent effectively doubled, which they could not afford, according to the tenant.

Under Berkeley laws passed in response to the pandemic, renters cannot be evicted except in specific circumstances, or charged late fees, if they provide a declaration of COVID-19-related financial distress.

Housing in the Bay Area is among the most expensive in the nation. Legislation, including rent control, has not entirely managed to counterbalance the high demand for housing in Berkeley caused in part by the more than 40,000 students competing for fewer units of campus housing.

As students left campus in response to the pandemic, demand for housing in the city decreased, dropping rent prices. As the city and state governments imposed eviction moratoriums and other restrictions on landlords, rental owners felt the squeeze, according to Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association.

“If a tenant is just not paying rent and still living in the unit, that’s really hard,” Gulbransen said. “But most small owners can’t afford to leave their property empty. They need the income, whether to maintain the buildings or to help them with their own incomes.”

Despite the eviction moratorium, Matthew Lewis, secretary of the Berkeley Tenants Union, or BTU, alleged that landlords have been breaking Berkeley laws. His organization represented a tenant who fell one month behind on rent, and their landlord tried to forcibly evict them. The BTU also represented the aforementioned anonymous tenant.

Gulbransen and Aman Daro, the chief operating officer at Red Oak Realty, credit the high pre-pandemic cost of housing to supply and demand, compounded by government regulation.

Lewis, however, said he disagrees. He points to the fact that before the pandemic, Berkeley had more than 3,000 vacant units. Although Gulbransen disputes the figure, she said for some landlords, it is economically more feasible to keep the units vacant.

“Every landlord you talk to that explains why they aren’t renting their unit, 90% of them will tell you it’s due to regulation,” Gulbransen said.

In response to the pandemic, several campus organizations have undertaken campaigns around housing.

One such organization is the Berkeley chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA. It started a campaign to pressure the UC Board of Regents to lower the price of housing for students, said central committee member Khamisa Kever. They see connections between the cost of student housing and the cost of housing for Berkeley residents.

“The University of California is the biggest landlord in the state of California, which means that they effectively are the regulators of the housing market,” said UC Berkeley YDSA co-chair Cyn Huang. “Their rental prices set the average statewide. The fight against the UC has ramifications for everyone suffering under the weight of exorbitant housing costs in California.”

The United Academic Workers Local 2865, representing student employees in the UC system, has been fighting around the issue of housing since the 1990s, according to Kavitha Iyengar, the organization’s president. It is fighting to set the cost of campus housing at no more than 30% of income, considering that in the case of student workers, their landlord also functions as their employer.

For students and tenants alike, housing remains a significant expense. Olivia Kehoe, a campus junior, said they were only able to move to UC Berkeley by securing a spot in the Berkeley Student Cooperative, which offers more affordable housing.

Nearly a year after the anonymous tenant decided to renew their lease with the hope of finding a new roommate, the tenant said they are sitting with about $20,000 in back rent to pay. This year, they are not sure what they are going to do.

David Villani is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @davidvillani7.

A previous version of this story reported that a landlord had improperly imposed late fees on a tenant for failure to pay rent. That landlord was incorrectly identified as Premium Properties. The Daily Californian regrets the error.