Last tenants of 1921 Walnut St. agree to vacate affordable units

Photo of 1921 Walnut Street building
Charlene Wang/Staff
The last remaining tenants of 1921 Walnut St. have agreed to vacate their rent-controlled units in exchange for relocation assistance. UC Berkeley plans to use the location to build student housing.

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After extensive community efforts to save eight rent-controlled units at 1921 Walnut St., the last of the tenants have agreed to move out, paving the way for its demolition and UC Berkeley’s construction of new student housing.

Demolition of the rent-controlled building will allow campus to add 75 beds to the plan of a new transfer student dorm named “Anchor House.” Anchor House will provide housing for 772 students in total when the development is completed, according to UC Berkeley Capital Strategies spokesperson Kyle Gibson.

“Living far from campus impedes a student’s ability to thrive academically, socially, and culturally,” Gibson said in an email. “This challenge is especially acute for transfer students, who are historically underserved by campus housing.”

Gibson added UC Berkeley ranks last out of all UC campuses in terms of percentage of beds for the student body, with 40% of undergraduates being unable to live in the city of Berkeley.

More than 5,000 students who applied for campus housing this semester were turned down due to lack of space, Gibson said in an email. This issue is even more pressing for low-income and transfer students, he added.

However, ASUC Senator Kalliope Zervas alleged in an email that justifying the project as aid to low-income students is a “facade,” as exclusive student-only apartments will not help the low-income community but rather displace those already living there. She added that while the student housing crisis should not be ignored and she herself has struggled to find affordable housing, she feels UC Berkeley should never displace low-income tenants from their homes.

“As of now, 1921 Walnut Street acts as an affordable, long-term housing option for low-income residents that would otherwise have no place to live,” Zervas said in an email. “The demolition of 1921 Walnut Street just increases the tension that has existed for so long between the residents of Berkeley and the University.”

The tenants at 1921 Walnut St. accepted an agreement with campus to move out from the building in exchange for compensatory relocation packages, according to Gibson. While unable to provide financial specifics, Gibson said in an email that the value of these packages could reach six figures.

Benefits included in these packages are relocation assistance, reimbursement for costs of moving and rental assistance for more than three years, according to Gibson. The packages also include an optional one-time payment equal to their total rental assistance for tenants to use for purchasing a home in an area of their choice.

“Though I’m glad to see much needed student housing finally being developed by the University, I’m disappointed that the administration would displace so many residents and destroy more than a dozen rent controlled units,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn in an email. “Beyond the impact on current tenants, once lost, these rent controlled units can never be replaced.”

According to Hahn, since the conception of Anchor House in 2018, various proposals to preserve the affordable units were conceived, including the idea of moving the physical building to another location in Berkeley.

Hahn said in an email that she felt frustrated that there was allegedly no “real consideration” given to this idea, although it was requested in the recent settlement between the city of Berkeley and campus.

City Councilmember Rigel Robinson said in an email that he felt 1921 Walnut St. should have never been a part of the plans for Anchor House and noted that there were options for developing student housing that could have been accomplished without destroying existing affordable housing.

Raising concerns of environmental injustice, ASUC Senator Varsha Madapoosi alleged that prioritizing housing for students over the greater Berkeley community takes away resources such as access to energy and green spaces from marginalized groups.

“The issue around housing in Berkeley is quite nuanced, but ultimately students are temporary guests in this city,” Madapoosi said in an email. “By building over 1921 Walnut St. UC Berkeley will potentially increase the number of houseless individuals and make conditions worse for the tenants in the long term.”

Matt Brown is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @maattttbrown.