Berkeley: 2631 Durant - New Apartment Building Caught Up in Rent Control Power Struggle

Rendering: OPHCA/Natoma Architects
It was almost a year ago that we first reported that a new apartment building was slated to replace an older structure just a block south of UC Berkeley near the corner of Durant and College. The project stood out because of its modern, Stanley Saitowitz designed exteriors that make it one of the most architecturally-noteworthy new developments in Berkeley. Despite securing initial approvals from the city's Zoning Adjustments Board in June 2015, the project has not moved forward because it has become the focus of a rent control debate.

The issue is that the city of Berkeley has a law that only allows the demolition of rent controlled apartment units if certain conditions are met. Most importantly, a developer needs to show that renovating the existing building is financially not feasible. Developer Cliff Orloff submitted paperwork with the initial zoning board review application (which you can find here) showing that due to extensive termite damage and other structural issues, it would not be feasible to renovate the existing building. City staff agreed with the assessment in part because the project would include 56 new units (adding 38 units above the current 18 units) and Orloff agreed to make 20 of the new units subject to rent control. You can read the report from city staff here and find the rest of the planning documents here.

Following the approval of the project last summer, several Berkeley residents filed an appeal and the matter was heard by the city council late last year. While some of the concerns of the appellants were rejected, the issue was ultimately relegated back to the Zoning Adjustments Board which was instructed to hold a public hearing about the project. The project is not listed on the current month's agenda and it is not clear when this meeting will be held.

Fearing that a dangerous precedent could be set if the demolition of these 18 rent control units moves forward, the Rent Stabilization Board (RSB) has also focused on fighting this project. The board claims that the economic analysis provided by the developer does not accurately portray the potential ROI of a renovated structure. The board claims that due to the area's popularity among college students and the resulting high rate of turnover, the developer could easily make a good return if he remodeled the building instead of demolishing it. The board is now spending $8,000 on an expert analysis to prove that the initial economic analysis was not correct. Funds would come from a settlement from a past lawsuit. You can read the Rent Stabilization Board's motion as well as its response to the project here.

This project, and all the controversy surrounding it, certainly shows the increasing tension between trying to protect our (relatively) affordable older housing stock while also trying to increase supply in a time when we're desperately short on housing in the Bay Area. It's easy to see how both extremes, unbridled demolitions or a complete standstill in new housing construction, could have terrible consequences. However, it's not quite as easy to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to the preservation of existing rent controlled housing stock versus strategically increasing density (without rent control) in popular areas.

From the public documents filed with the city, it seems that the developer has shown a willingness to compromise by offering to make 20 of the planned 56 housing units subject to rent control. This would allow Berkeley to get the benefit of retaining rent control on a similar number of units while also getting much needed new housing. The RSB, on the other hand, is pretty much saying no way, no how - not surprising given its purpose of "stabilizing" or controlling rents in Berkeley.

Whatever your opinions may be on this matter, now is the time to participate in a real life conversation as you can help shape the course of this and future developments - especially if you're a resident of Berkeley. The developer of this project Cliff Orloff who brought this issue to my attention is inviting feedback from the community and stressed that he welcomes feedback from both people who support and oppose the project. You can email him at clifforloff@yahoo.com

In the spirit of fairness, I also want to include the contact information of the Rent Stabilization Board if anyone wants to voice their opinions to them as well: rent@cityofberkeley.info
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