man with sign rallies outside apartment building
Davone Riddick, center, whose family has lived at 1921 Walnut St. since 1970, spoke out against UC Berkeley’s plans to buy and possibly demolish the building at a rally on June 29, 2020. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Davone Riddick, center, whose family has lived at 1921 Walnut St. since 1970, spoke out against UC Berkeley’s plans to buy and possibly demolish the building at a rally on June 29, 2020. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Davone Riddick has been living at 1921 Walnut St. since 1989, but has been visiting the 111-year-old apartment building for much longer.

Riddick’s stepfather moved into the building in 1970, meaning Riddick has practically grown up in the 1909 structure designed by George L. Mohr. But he might not be living there much longer.

UC Berkeley is in negotiations to buy  — and potentially tear down — the building, which comprises eight rent-controlled two-bedroom units. Twelve people live there. The university is planning to break ground in late 2021 on an 850-bed apartment complex right next door to house transfer- and upper-division students, part of what is known as the Gateway site. If Cal gains control of 1921 Walnut St. it could potentially expand that project.

“This building means a lot to me,” Riddick said Monday at a rally called to draw attention to UC Berkeley’s plans. “I grew up here. I have a lot of history. Hearing it was going to be torn down really hurt me. I’m worried. Where am I going to go next?”

Riddick’s views were echoed by other people living in the building.

“We want to stay,” said Kim Romero, who has lived in the building for 10 years. Her husband, Theo Robinson, has lived there since 1994. “We want UC Berkeley to build around us. They don’t have to displace long-term residents … We are in favor of housing but not at the expense of affordable housing.”

Tenants rights’ activists joined the fight

Backing up the tenants were members of the Berkeley Tenants’ Union and the Eviction Defense Center. Representatives from Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office, as well as the office of City Councilmember Kate Harrison, were there.

The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the Associated Students of the University of California, as well as the mayor and various city council members, have all written letters to the university asking it not to destroy the rent-controlled units.

Other options that have been discussed include building around 1921 Walnut St. (which the university originally intended to do) or replacing the rent-controlled units with other rent-controlled units.

So far, the university has not indicated it is interested in pursuing those options. Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for capital strategies at UC Berkeley, told Berkeleyside in May that it was “unlikely” Cal would build new rent-controlled apartments.

Berkeley has a law requiring the reconstruction of rent-controlled units when any rent-controlled units are torn down. But UC Berkeley does not have to comply with local laws because it is a state institution.

UC Berkeley is facing a severe housing shortage

UC Berkeley houses a lower percentage of its students than any other UC campus, a situation that has only gotten worse as student enrollment has skyrocketed in the past five years. Chancellor Carol Christ has vowed to increase the university’s housing production. A new long-range development plan now being prepared says Cal will build 11,700 units of housing in the next 15 years. The plan lays out 13 sites that will be studied as potential housing spots.

The Gateway Project is at the top of the list, as is a complex at People’s Park. One reason may be that an anonymous donor has agreed to pay for the construction of the complex. UC Berkeley will hand over the land, the donor will be responsible for the construction, and then the donor will donate it to Cal when it is completed, according to UC Berkeley officials.

UC Berkeley has not yet completed its acquisition of 1921 Walnut St. and has not yet decided to demolish it or a brown-shingle building next door, even though it is “contemplating the development of the entire block,” said Gibson.

John Selawsky, center, of the Berkeley Tenants Union addresses those gathered at a rally outside 1921 Walnut St. on June 29, 2020. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

John Selawsky, the secretary of the Berkeley Tenants Union  — he also serves on the rent board, the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Board of Library Trustees and is a former school board member — said losing eight rent-controlled units during a severe affordable-housing shortage is a travesty. He called on the university to rethink its plans.

Tenants have also decried what they see as callousness on UC Berkeley’s part. They were notified they might have to move on April 17 when W. Forbes Company, the company that both owns and manages the building, stuck a letter from UC Berkeley inside a W. Forbes Company envelope. The letter informed the tenants that the UC Regents “propose to undertake the redevelopment of the property.” It went on to say tenants would be eligible for relocation assistance and would be contacted by the professional firm Autotemp within a month to discuss the situation. The letter went on to say that no “imminent action” to evict people was contemplated.

The tenants blasted Cal for threatening to upend their living situation during a public-health pandemic.

A sign at the rally said “We have a right to live here. Don’t U.C.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...