A Milvia Street four-plex is among seven properties that are currently going through Ellis Act evictions. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Berkeley’s attempt to freeze Ellis Act evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic will not be successful because of a state bill signed into law by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis on Thursday.

Berkeley was the first city in the state to create an eviction ordinance when the pandemic began in March 2020, closely followed by Oakland and Alameda County, mandating that no one can be evicted during the ongoing state of emergency.

The only exceptions are health and safety issues and the Ellis Act, which is protected by state law and invoked when an owner decides to take a property off the rental market for at least five years.

Berkeley’s City Council had approved an amendment to its eviction ban in December 2020 to also halt Ellis Act evictions beginning Friday, but state Assembly Bill 2179, approved Thursday, will overrule that protection. All other anti-eviction protections for Berkeley renters will remain in place because they were established in March 2020, before the state created its own law.

AB 2179 protects residents statewide from eviction proceedings that were supposed to begin on April 1, pushing that date to July 1 as long as residents file for Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funding by Thursday, March 31. Berkeley and Alameda County residents do not have to abide by this timeline, but legal language contained in the bill means the local Ellis Act amendment will not be valid.

“It’s wrong that the state once again is preempting the ability for local governments to strengthen tenant protections,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said. “While I am glad that they extended the eviction moratorium for those tenants who are seeking ERAP funding, in Berkeley our eviction moratorium is still in effect and all tenants are protected.”

Leah Simon-Weisberg, Berkeley rent board chair, said the city had hoped to preempt the controversial state law due to the city’s emergency ordinance, which has been renewed several times as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The emergency ordinance gave the city the power to stop all evictions, and Los Angeles and other Southern California cities also created amendments to block the Ellis Act.

But City Attorney Farimah Brown said the language in AB 2179 postpones any amendments to July 15, 2022, which could ultimately block the change indefinitely. Simon-Weisberg called the state law “cruel and unnecessary” because it doesn’t add additional renter protections, while also interfering with those the city tried to provide during a pandemic.

Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owner’s Association, said the city was out of line to try and prohibit Ellis Act evictions in the first place. She said it’s one of the only remaining venues for owners in the city to regain control of their properties.

“For a local jurisdiction to think that they can overrule a state law is beyond comprehension,” Gulbransen said. Several jurisdictions throughout the state, like Oakland and Los Angeles, have also been sued over their eviction moratoriums during the pandemic.

Ellis Act evictions are not widespread in Berkeley, and as of the Rent Stabilization Board’s most recent report, only seven had been filed in the city as of Jan. 1, 2020. Those properties are scattered throughout the city and range from single-family homes to multi-unit complexes.

At most of the properties, tenants already moved out before the Ellis Act deadline and a majority of units are currently vacant.

One Berkeley fourplex which was served an Ellis Act eviction last summer currently has a single remaining tenant. The tenant did not want to be named to preserve her relationship with her landlord, but said the timing of the eviction has been especially difficult in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ellis Act has a provision that gives tenants above the age of 60 a year to relocate. The tenant said she’s grateful for the extra time because she’s in her 70s, and everything takes a bit longer at that age — especially because she’s immunocompromised and didn’t feel comfortable seeking out new housing during the pandemic.

Now that the three-month deadline for the eviction is approaching, the tenant said she will likely have to move out of the state to afford a new home, like another former tenant in the building.

She credited strong rent controls for being able to stay in the vibrant, neighborhood for nearly 40 years, commute to a public-sector job without without a reliance on cars and build a life in Berkeley.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...