Several tenants who’ve been evicted from a Solano Avenue apartment complex are trying to reverse their fortunes, with the help of lawyers, a land trust and elected officials.
For decades, the 13-unit complex at 1685 Solano Ave. has housed a mix of residents — including, most recently, a Berkeley teacher, a business owner and a 96-year-old woman. The property is rent-controlled and subject to Berkeley’s eviction protections, but the owners have invoked the Ellis Act. The state law permits full-building evictions if the property is removed from the rental market altogether.
Lawyers and tenants say they’ve been told that the Solano owners want to sell the individual units in the building, converting it to a “tenancy in common.” Other owners often use the Ellis Act to turn apartments into condos, but Berkeley regulates that process much more heavily.
The Solano tenants — including the few who’ve defied eviction orders and stayed in their apartments past the deadline — have other ideas about what should be done with the property.
The Bay Area Community Land Trust wants to purchase the building on the tenants’ behalves, likely requiring significant funds from the city, and turn it into a permanently affordable cooperative for them and generations of low-income residents afterward.
The owners have shown no interest in the idea, according to the land trust.
A California family named Su has owned the building since 2008 — Christina, Robert and Julia Su have addresses listed in San Francisco, San Mateo and Northridge — and runs the property through a limited liability company. The Sus have no obligation to entertain the land trust’s nontraditional idea. The landlords might be looking for a profit that’s larger than what a city or a nonprofit could afford for the building. (A representative for the family did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
But community organizers and now some city leaders have rallied behind the land trust and the building’s tenants, trying to pressure the landlords into meeting them halfway. They argue that the circumstances at the complex reflect trends in displacement and eviction across the Bay Area — and present an opportunity for a mutually beneficial outcome.
“This case represents a crisis in the lives of many of our clients,” said Peter Selawsky, a lawyer with the Eviction Defense Center, in an email last week. “We have a potential solution to this crisis that doesn’t involve the owners giving up their right to a fair return on their investment, and so far the owners won’t even name a price.”
Buyouts, evictions, asbestos
The tenants of 1685 Solano Ave. first got wind of their landlords’ plans for the property in August 2018, when buyout offers arrived in the mail. The letters said any resident who chose to move out would receive around $17,000.
“We were all quite surprised,” said Peggy Magilen, who lived at the complex for three years until the eventual eviction.
A tenant described the buyout figure — equivalent to less than a year’s worth of rent for most tenants — as “insultingly low.”
In an interview last week, Magilen said she’d previously had good experiences with the property managers. Looking back, though, there are signs that the owners had grander plans for the property, she said. The landlords never bothered to raise her rent by the annual increments allowed under the city’s rent-control law, according to Magilen. As of this year, most tenants were paying far below market rate, such as $1,558 for a two-bedroom or $1,742 for a one-bedroom, city records show. (Rent control caps the allowed amount, but small annual boosts are permitted.)
Magilen is now suspicious that the rent stability was an indication that the owners always wanted to flip the property.
In October 2018, residents received another buyout offer — this one explaining that the owners intended to “Ellis” the property. In the letter to the tenants, Jennifer Jones, the owners’ representative, wrote that accepting the offer instead of waiting for the Ellis evictions would be “the most sensible manner” in which to proceed for all parties.
A few took the buyouts, but most were not tempted.
Olivier Said, co-owner of the North Berkeley culinary school Kitchen on Fire, was one of the tenants who declined the offer. He said he often works 12- or 15-hour days, teaching classes, running his business, and regularly volunteering at local food organizations, training refugees and people who’ve just gotten out of prison to be cooks. His apartment is close to work and to his son.
“If I have to live half an hour away, and on top of it pay more money, it’s going to be very difficult for me to sustain that business,” said Said, one of the hold-outs who’s stayed in the building past eviction day.
In April 2019, the long-anticipated Ellis Act notices arrived, officially announcing that the landlords would stop renting out the building. Under the law, tenants under age 62 were given four months to leave, and older residents got a year. However, that notice was rescinded, and a new Ellis Act eviction notice was sent in July, making the end of November the official deadline for the younger tenants and July 2020 the move-out date for the older ones.
Around the time of the first notice, construction work began on the units that were vacant, from the buyouts or otherwise. By July, tenants said, hallways were covered in dust and paper, and constant construction noise had become a given.
“They were huge renovations,” Magilen said at a rally held by the land trust and other organizations in November. “There were 18 workers doing exploratory drilling. There were clouds of suspect dust.”
In August, Cal/OSHA came in to check out the property. According to Magilen, it was not a tenant who tipped off the health-and-safety agency.
Tenants later obtained a July 22 inspection report, commissioned by contractor Reliance Building, that had revealed asbestos was present in rooms throughout the building and had discovered lead paint too. Tenants suspect that someone affiliated with the contractor tipped off OSHA.
Tenants worry they’ve been exposed to the hazardous materials during the construction work.
“Workers come in with masks on and full-body white (suits),” Magilen said at the rally. “Tenants have nothing.”
In August, the city of Berkeley inspected the property and notified owners of numerous code violations in the building, from a missing carbon monoxide monitor and faulty fire alarm system to a broken elevator and damaged walls. The letter gave the owners a month to do the repairs or take out the necessary permits for the work.
In October, the owners sent notices to tenants ordering them to temporarily relocate, telling residents that repair work was “necessary to bring your unit into compliance” with city code and that construction would last from late October to March 2020.
Tenants say the notices only went to the residents who were at least 62 years old — the ones who were allowed to continue living in the building until the summer of 2020. The Ellis Act notice had required the younger tenants to leave the building by the end of November 2019, a month after the repair work was apparently set to begin.
The fact that the notice was only sent to the longer-term tenants made those residents feel the owners were attempting to force them out months ahead of the eviction date they were entitled to, lawyer Selawsky said.
“Having all these issues (asbestos, Ellis Act, temporary relocation) come up at a single building at the same time is extremely rare,” he said.
A community land trust wants to buy the building
The Bay Area Community Land Trust thinks the Solano building is a prime candidate for the nonprofit’s model.
Program manager Miranda Strominger said the circumstances there are “exactly the type of situation that Berkeley has committed to preventing — displacement of longterm tenants in explicit pursuit of profit.”
The land trust, based in Berkeley, typically purchases private property, retaining ownership of the land but selling the building to residents — requiring them to keep it affordable forever. The Berkeley-based organization typically helps those residents form cooperative ownership structures. There are a few land trust houses in Berkeley that have been functioning as affordable cooperatives for years.
But most small nonprofits can’t up and buy a 13-unit building. The purchase would likely depend on significant funding from the city. For example, the city of Berkeley lent the land trust $1 million this year to help the McGee Avenue Baptist Church reopen a residential property in South Berkeley.
Both Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn spoke at the Solano rally, saying they wanted to support the tenants. The rally was organized by the land trust, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action, East Bay Housing Organizations and the Berkeley Tenants Union. The land trust says it wants the owners to name their price for the building — then the nonprofit would likely approach the city with a request.
Said hopes his landlords consider the land trust purchase, he said.
“It is very fine to make money, absolutely,” he said. “But on the other hand, they’re chasing people away. I feel that I’m giving a lot, and the point is, everybody should do that. The more money you have, the more you need to do that. If you buy something and you know you’re going to ruin someone’s life, there must be a compromise.”
The owners likely view the situation differently. They are pursuing a path countless people before them have gone down: buying a property and, some years later, selling it. In Berkeley, they’re facing an unusual demand that most never encounter.
Many more local owners could soon face similar situations, however. Arreguín has named as a top priority a new law that would give tenants the first right of refusal to buy their building if their landlord puts it on the market. The so-called Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act has not been formally proposed yet, but it’s been under discussion for a couple of years. If that law was in effect already, the outcome of the Solano evictions might have been different.
Earlier this month there was a mediation session between the two sides, though people who attended said it was not fruitful.
Magilen, however, said she recently “made an important connection” with someone associated with the owners, making her more hopeful that, with deeper discussions between the sides, they could reach an understanding and “create a path of solution for both.”
“The potential is there to preserve the building forever, to have community ownership over housing,” added Ronald Flannery, an organizer with EBHO.
“The difficult element here is the owners have the right to do what they want, and it’s about how much public pressure we can turn towards,” he said.