We are the long-term, rent-controlled tenants at 1921 Walnut St. in Berkeley. Since April 2020, UC Berkeley has pursued plans to evict us and demolish our homes.
We do not oppose UC Berkeley building more student housing. What we oppose is the UC administration’s hasty decision to purchase 1921 Walnut St. at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, ignore the Berkeley community’s concerns and pursue shadowy plans to replace our long-standing community with luxury apartments and market-rate commercial spaces.
In January 2020, UC Berkeley planned to build up to 810 student beds next door to 1921 Walnut St. At the time, it was known as the Gateway Student Housing Project. Then, suddenly, in the months prior to April 2020, UC Berkeley altered the project — now known as Anchor House, among many other names, including Housing Project #1 and Helen Diller Anchor House — to include the purchase of 1921 Walnut St. and thus essentially evict the building’s tenants, all for the purpose of building only 772 beds on the entire site and allocating square footage for market-rate commercial space, a fitness center, multiple lounge areas and fancy amenities on par with other luxury apartments.
Over the past 14 months, broad community support for the preservation of 1921 Walnut St. has consistently grown, expressed by elected officials and a variety of community groups. These include Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Berkeley City Council, UC Berkeley’s ASUC, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, the Sierra Club, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan and others.
These organizations carry the voices of thousands of members and gave official declarations of support for preserving 1921 Walnut St. We have held community barbeques, protests and marches attended by local leaders and hundreds of community members. More than a thousand individuals have signed petitions urging UC Berkeley to preserve our homes. The message is loud and clear: Save 1921 Walnut St.
However, over the past 14 months, UC Berkeley officials have flatly refused to meet with the tenants of 1921 Walnut St. Furthermore, UC administration illegally withholds information about the redevelopment project, has apparently dismissed calls for UC Berkeley to obey Berkeley’s legal tenant protections and has been utterly disrespectful to the tenants of 1921 Walnut St. and to the Berkeley community as a whole. UC Berkeley has also been caught red-handed misrepresenting facts about tenants at 1921 Walnut St. and twisting reality to disguise the harmful consequences of displacing the long-standing community that lives in the building.
On June 16, we published an open letter that exposes UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ’s and Vice Chancellor Marc Fisher’s misrepresentation, which includes giving false numbers about how many tenants currently live at 1921 Walnut St. and how many are negotiating to leave, as well as claims of “robust” community engagement and “generous” relocation packages.
The truth is, if the university evicts us, it will destroy a long-standing community and displace us from our rent-stabilized homes forever, resulting in disastrous consequences for us. If any other developer wanted to eliminate rent-controlled housing in the city of Berkeley in this manner, by law the tenants would not be forced to permanently relocate. UC Berkeley believes it can ignore the crushing effects its plans will have on the tenants of 1921 Walnut St., who include a single mom with a young child, a 27-year tenant of the building and a 62-year-old individual near retirement.
Tenant protections are a core principle of Berkeley and many Bay Area cities. These protections are necessary to protect long-standing communities and vulnerable residents from skyrocketing housing costs. Every resident of the Bay Area knows this. We all want more housing, but we recognize that it is necessary to build new housing while also preserving existing affordable housing.
As many of our supporters recognize, the cause to save 1921 Walnut St. is not just about the tenants who live there. It’s about saving rent-controlled housing stock in Berkeley. It’s about the dangerous precedent this will set if the UC system is allowed to gobble up cheaper, rent-controlled housing stock in Berkeley as its new real estate acquisition tactic.
If the university is allowed to evict the tenants at 1921 Walnut St. and demolish their homes, the building will probably not be the last rent-controlled one that the university acquires, and the tenants at 1921 Walnut St. will likely not be the last long-standing community that the university displaces. This is an outrage. The UC system cannot be allowed to abuse its privilege.
We demand that UC Berkeley and the UC system stop their unethical displacement of our community. We ask all community members to stand with us and share our story. We ask that the city’s elected representatives and administrators fight for Berkeley tenants and work to ensure that UC Berkeley follows the spirit of the law. We ask UC Berkeley to build its student housing next door to 1921 Walnut St. and be a good neighbor. We ask the UC Board of Regents to examine the tactics of UC Berkeley and oppose any and all plans to demolish 1921 Walnut St. or evict the tenants. There are many feasible options, and taking away our homes should not be one of them.
We know this is a David and Goliath struggle. We know that the UC system has all the lawyers, influence and money. But what we do have is people power. We have community support. And, ultimately, we have the moral high ground.