Nearly three years after tenants evicted from a 13-unit North Berkeley apartment building mobilized to stay, they are seeing a path to returning home.
Residents of the apartment at 1685 Solano Ave. first received buyout letters in the mail in summer 2019. That pre-empted an eviction months later, but some residents stood their ground and refused to leave the property — especially after lawyers and tenant advocates found holes in the eviction attempt.
The building is rent-controlled and overseen by the Rent Stabilization Board, but a state carveout known as the Ellis Act allows property owners to evict tenants if they plan to remove the building from the rental market (even during an eviction moratorium). It’s an uncommon practice in Berkeley and the Solano Avenue eviction is among only a handful in recent times.
Berkeley’s mayor and City Council rallied around the group of tenants, and the nonprofit Bay Area Community Land Trust was finally able to purchase the property this summer after a drawn-out negotiation process with the owners, who weren’t keen on turning over the building.
The Su family purchased the building in February 2008, and owned it under a limited liability company until June 29 of this year, according to the Alameda County assessor’s office. Representatives for the owners didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Three tenants remained in the apartment complex — originally occupied by teachers, small business owners, small families and elderly and retired residents — through the months of turmoil and indecision surrounding the property.
Olivier Said, 61, was one of them. He moved to Berkeley in 1998 and was part of the team that opened the restaurant César, before starting his own culinary education business —Kitchen on Fire. He also serves food to cancer patients, and said he had no option but to stay at the property through the attempted eviction while he ran his businesses during COVID-19.
Said is proud of what tenants accomplished with “civil disobedience” and grateful to advocates and city leaders who supported them. But after weathering the turbulent housing situation through COVID-19, he’s left without a true feeling of relief.
“The last three years have taught us that stability isn’t [really] part of society,” Said said at the re-opening celebration for the apartments, explaining that he hasn’t had an emotional catharsis. “Businesswise, you can see it’s all over the place. But you become numb to things in a way, which is not good.”
Staying in the building itself has been chaotic and eerie over the last years, with ongoing construction and desolate, empty hallways with doors that swing open in the night.
“I’m looking forward to being among neighbors and a full apartment again,” Said said. “It’s super important for humans to be among other humans. You want [neighbors] to disturb you a little bit.”
Purchasing the building was an uphill battle, but the city supported it
Land trust property acquisitions have been gaining steam in Berkeley, and are part of the city’s strategy to increase affordable housing. The Bay Area Community Land Trust earlier this month unveiled a small, renovated complex with the McGee Avenue Baptist Church in South Berkeley, and the Northern California Land Trust opened a “safe home” in Downtown Berkeley for homeless residents transitioning into permanent housing.
The land trust said negotiating for the Solano property was difficult, but the owners ultimately agreed to sell for a little over $4 million.
Toward the $7.1 million total cost of buying and renovating the building, the city chipped in $3.9 million; $2.5 million came from its housing trust fund and $1.4 million more from Measure U1, and the land trust received additional financial backing from nonprofit financier Enterprise Community Partners.
City leaders and the land trust see this as a victory in a state where each new unit of housing construction can cost up to $1 million, according to a 2020 Los Angeles Times investigation.
“We have a deep anxiety about our home no matter where you are on the economic ladder right now,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, chair of the rent board who has pushed back strongly on Ellis Act evictions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This project is about ‘we are not going to stand by while you suffer housing insecurity.'”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Terry Taplin and Kate Harrison were also at the opening.
“This building is an example of the displacement crisis happening in our community,” Arreguin said. “On a personal level, having been evicted multiple times in my life, I know how scary and destabilizing it is to lose your house.”
Rent at the building will be between the range of $1,330 for a large one-bedroom, up to $2,572 for a large two-bedroom apartment, with three apartments limited to those earning less than 50% of the Area Median Income (around $50,000 for one person or $57,000 for two people) and seven units will be affordable at or below 80% of AMI (around $91,000 for two people).
Rents for still-occupied units and returning residents will range between $800 to $1,900.
Layers of loss for residents who weathered the process
Almost exactly three years after she moved out of the Solano Avenue building in 2019, Kim Martin walked through the renovated, sunbathed property and remembered her one-time home of 12 years. She pointed out her old unit (now under construction) and talked about memories of former tenants in the stairwells and hallways of the building.
Months after the eviction was served and a majority of the tenants moved out of the building, the apartment community lost Margaret Cutter, an elderly tenant who stayed involved with the struggle through her last years.
She was 97 years old when she died in May 2020, and was known as the “Queen of Solano” during her time in Berkeley, according to her obituary. She was born and raised in Berkeley, attended Cal, worked in the aeronautical engineering industry and volunteered at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland in later years.
Before the eviction proceedings began, Martin said, she was pretty much a “good morning” and “good evening” neighbor who minded her own business. The struggle to stay in their apartment brought the residents a lot closer, especially over hours of community meetings and discussions, she said.
Cutter always stayed informed and involved in the ongoing proceedings as much as she could, even though she was 96 years old at the time and eventually moved into a care home on her own, Martin said. And at that age, Cutter always took the stairs.
Martin’s memories of Cutter weigh heavy, as well as the disruption of having to leave a home that she thought she would stay in for a long, long time.
She raised children as a single mother in the East Bay, and endured difficult rental environments for much of it before finding what she thought would be a peaceful, permanent home on Solano Avenue.
The process turned her into an advocate for others in her position but, like Said, she’s burnt out and doesn’t feel complete relief. Having her home back is the culmination of countless late-night meetings, research and what she described as a “monstrosity” of a process.
“I’m grateful to be returning back to the Solano Avenue apartments, but beyond that … knowing permanently affordable apartments have been preserved for eligible tenants for years to come gives me a warm feeling, it really does,” Martin said.