UC Berkeley will tear down 1921 Walnut St., built in 1909, so a new 772-bed complex for transfer students can go up. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

The remaining tenants at 1921 Walnut St. have agreed to move out, setting the stage for UC Berkeley to tear down a 112-year-old rent-controlled building so a new $300 million, 772-bed, 14-story dorm for transfer students can go up.

The decision to leave was a hard one, according to a few of the residents, who said they ultimately felt they had no choice as an array of factors were aligned against them. Ever since Cal purchased the building in July 2020, the tenants have fought its destruction and their eviction. They have held rallies, marched through downtown, made videos, set up a website outlining the situation, and garnered support from the Berkeley City Council, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) and others. UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley even said in July, as part of their newest agreement, that they would explore moving the building, but that effort never really got far.

The tenants were no match for Berkeley and UC Berkeley’s imperative to build more student housing – and the fact that Cal, a state institution, does not have to comply with the city’s safeguards for tenants. Many saw the irony in the fact the new student housing would come at the cost of eight rent-controlled units.

“We [tenants] had no real options left to fight,” said Natalie Logusch, who has lived in the building for 11 years. “The eviction moratorium ends Sept. 30 and UC said they plan to start demolition in the fall of 2021.”

Tenants at 1921 Walnut St
Tenants at 1921 Walnut St Association in January. Credit: 1921 Walnut St Association

Just hours before UC Berkeley announced the development on Tuesday, the group Save 1921 Walnut released a video that details the fight it has made to save the building.

UC Berkeley bought the building in the summer of 2020 after its owner approached the university, according to Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, the department that oversees development projects. It stands on the corner of the block where the new Helen Diller Anchor House project will be erected. Plans for the new transfer student complex did not originally include the land where the apartment building stood, but once the university owned it, the size of the complex was expanded to include it.

At the time, seven of the eight units were occupied and 12 people lived in the two-bedroom apartments. Some tenants had lived there for 25 years. One tenant said he was the third generation in his family to live in the apartment building. Now only four of the eight units in the building are occupied, but the exact number of people living there is unclear, said Gibson.

UC Berkeley has offered a relocation package to each of the units, said Gibson. While the university declined to release details, the payouts could reach into six figures, university officials have said previously. The payout applies to each unit of the building, not each tenant, Gibson said. Critics of UC Berkeley’s plan have said the money will not make up for the loss of not having an affordable rent-controlled unit for decades.

“The University acknowledges and regrets the challenges associated with relocation and hopes the relocation packages will ease the attendant stress and burdens,” Gibson said in a statement.

The relocation package includes:

  • Assistance finding new housing that is nearby and maintains their standard of living.
  • Reimbursement for moving expenses.
  • Rental assistance payments for more than 3 years, which are based upon household income, rent, and additional factors.
  • An optional one-time lump sum payment equal to their total rental assistance payment, to use in purchasing a home in a community of their choice.

“It’s not the same as having our rent-controlled apartments and we would have preferred to stay at 1921 Walnut St.,” Paul Wallace, a long-time tenant, wrote in an email.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who joined the protests against the building’s demolition and who said he came up with the idea of moving the structure, expressed regret Tuesday that the tenants had to leave but said he is pleased they will get relocation assistance.

“I am glad that UC Berkeley agreed to make all the tenants whole due to their eviction,” he wrote in an email. “My position has not changed, I oppose UC’s decision to demolish 1921 Walnut Street, and believe that we can build new student housing and preserve existing rent-controlled housing.”

While Berkeley was powerless to force UC Berkeley to construct eight new rent-controlled units to replace those they were tearing down, the university did agree to pay the city’s demolition impact fee for each of the eight units, said Arreguín, who added that it was his proposal. That $920,000 will go into the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

Paola Laverde, who has been fighting to preserve the building both as an elected rent board commissioner and as a member of the Berkeley Tenants’ Union, said the relocation package doesn’t make up for the disruption moving will cause.

“The university has displaced Berkeley residents from affordable housing and it’s shameful, especially since the new housing that will be built will be for short-term renters,” said Laverde. “The university is replacing long-term housing with short-term housing.”

Brandon Yung, the ASUC Housing Commission Chair, did not comment specifically on 1921 Walnut St. or the Anchor House project. But in general, he said he supports building more student housing. (Disclosure: Yung used to be a freelancer for Berkeleyside.)

“All students are in deep recognition that the path forward is to provide housing near campus so as not to contribute to the displacement of working-class Berkeleyans,” said Yung.

In addition to demolishing 1921 Walnut St., which was built in 1909 by William B. Heywood, two other historic structures will be destroyed: The university garage on Oxford Street, designed as the Richfield Oil Service by the architect Walter Ratcliffe in 1930 and a traditional brown shingle home owned by UC Berkeley right next door to 1921 Walnut St.

rendering of new dorm Anchor House at UC Berkeley
The Anchor House will be built on top of the land that holds 1921 Walnut St. Credit: Morris Adjami Architects

Anchor House project is a $300 million gift to Cal

The Anchor House project will be a gift to Cal, the biggest in its history. The Helen Diller Family Foundation is paying for the complex’s construction. The foundation set up an LLC, Oski 360, to oversee the construction and will gift the complex to UC Berkeley after construction is completed. Cal will operate the building, though the foundation will play a large role in the building’s management.

The Prometheus Real Estate Group, founded by Sanford Diller in 1965, is the economic engine that funds the Helen Diller Family Foundation. Prometheus is the largest private owner of multifamily properties in the San Francisco Bay Area with about 15,000 units spread throughout multiple counties. Jackie Safier, Diller’s daughter, is CEO of Prometheus and also serves on the policy advisory board for the Fisher Center of Real Estate and Urban Economics at the Haas School of Business. She did not attend Cal, but both her parents, Sanford and Helen Diller, did. The foundation has also given UC Berkeley $20 million for other projects.

The Helen Diller Foundation structured the deal so that all profits from rents would be funneled into a fund that will hand out $2.5 million in scholarships annually to about 100 first-generation, lower-income students. While this is laudable, according to Leah Simon-Weisberg, the chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, it does not make up for the fact that Prometheus has been “historically hostile to rent control.” Prometheus donated nearly $1 million to oppose Proposition 21, the Rent Affordability Act, which voters defeated in November. It would have expanded rent control around the state.

Simon-Weisberg said the company is creating problems for renters and then turning around and subsidizing a few tenants.

Simon-Weisberg called for UC Berkeley to make all its living units nonprofit so as to reduce pressure on rents in Berkeley.

Was there a serious attempt to move 1921 Walnut St.?

When the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley revealed the details of their $83 million settlement over Cal’s long-range development plan on July 28, there was an unexpected development: The university would explore relocating the eight-apartment building. But with a projected (and hoped-for start date) in the fall, that did not leave many months to find a new site.

Arreguín told Berkeleyside that relocating the building was his idea and that his office had kept the tenants apprised of the situation. “My office has been in frequent correspondence with the tenants, providing them open and transparent updates as soon as we can do so,” Arreguín wrote in an email. “I understand the tenants’ frustration given the limited authority the City had in this situation.”

On Aug. 23, Arreguín’s legislative aide, Stefan Elgstrand, answered questions that Logusch had sent to the mayor. The email hinted at the difficulty of moving the building, which UC Berkeley engineers said had some seismic deficiencies. It could take months to get the necessary permits, Elgstrand said. That would conflict with Cal’s goal of starting construction of the Anchor House project in November. Elgstrand told the tenants that the city had no influence over the timing of the project.

“Relocating a building to a private or City-owned property would require a Use Permit, which could take 6-9 months to process,” Elgstrand wrote. “Referral to the LPC and DRC could be required prior to action by the ZAB, plus CEQA review. Thus, moving to a University-owned property would be more straightforward, if they can bypass some of the City’s review processes, though they have committed to considering the City’s zoning requirements in their own process. Relocation sites would need to be properly zoned for the use and development of the site, i.e. density, setbacks, height, etc.”

Elgstrand said the city was looking at two possible sites on public land for relocation: one at 1631 Fifth St. and another at a parking lot at the corner of Adeline and Alcatraz. The building’s tenants proposed moving the building 50 feet into Berkeley Way, a public right of way, and shutting the street to all cars except service vehicles, said Wallace.

Despite this one email, Logusch and Wallace said they felt abandoned by Arreguín and believe he backed off his commitment to help save the structure. They never met face to face with the mayor despite multiple requests.

“We honestly felt that he sold us out, in fact, he did a 180-degree turn, from unanimous council support for maintaining the eight rent-controlled units; to accepting $920,000.00 from UC in favor of them knocking the building and eliminating the 8 rent-controlled apartments from Berkeley rental housing stock … forever!” Wallace wrote in an email.

While the remaining tenants are moving out, the fight to preserve the building continues.

“I still think 1921 Walnut St. should be relocated,” Logusch wrote in an email. “This whole fight was about more than just the tenants, it was really about these rent-controlled units because once the units are destroyed, they are gone from the rent-controlled housing stock forever. There is still time for the Mayor to move the building, he can absolutely do it if he has the political will. I wonder though — does he actually care about preserving affordable or rent-controlled housing? If he does, this is his chance to actually save rent-controlled housing stock.”

The remaining tenants will vacate their apartments by Nov. 1. Neither Logusch nor Wallace knows where they will go next.

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 Created California, published in November...