Costa Hawkins Bill Cut Rents, Added Units

Tuesday May 25, 2004

Jesse Arreguin recently wrote in this newspaper (Letters, Daily Planet, May 14-17) that “Costa Hawkins and excessive rent levels led to the lack of housing in Berkeley.” I doubt that Mr. Arreguin was living in Berkeley when rent control began in 1979, or that he has taken the time to study the history of this issue.  

A large number of evictions occurred during the period between the rent freeze mandated by Measure I (which started rent control) and the beginning of eviction control about a year later. I watched this happen. Several previously rented houses in my neighborhood were emptied out in 1979 by owners who wished to evade this regulation.  

The sudden onset of the housing shortage in 1979 was well documented in local newspapers, such as the Berkeley Gazette, the Daily Californian and the Oakland Tribune. Articles from this time have been preserved on microfilm and are available in the periodicals room of UC’s Doe Library for anyone who wishes to look into Berkeley history.  

For example, the Daily Cal reported that the UC Student Housing Office was swamped with 6,000 more homeseekers in August of 1979 than in August of 1978, yet had 32 percent fewer listings to offer. An article in September 1979 referred to “a housing shortage unprecedented since World War II.” Chancellor Albert Bowker appealed to homeowners in the community to rent rooms in their houses to incoming students, or else some of them might have to give up their plans to study at Cal.  

Property owners removed rental units from the market in a number of ways, mostly by conversion to owner occupancy. Tenancy in common (TIC) sales flourished in the nicer parts of town, as duplexes and triplexes which had been rented were sold to multiple owners for shared occupancy. As long as rent control was perceived as excessively Draconian, removed units stayed off the market, one way or another. 

Some buildings ceased to be used for housing. The “Ellen Blood House” at 2526 Durant Ave. was sold in the 1980s to a large landowner who promptly changed it to commercial usage without benefit of a use permit (in fact, several attempts to legalize this usage were denied). Ironically, the same owner now wants this historic building expunged because he thinks replacing it with 44 superfluous units will be profitable. It will not—our apartment glut is not going away any time soon. 

Despite Mr. Arreguin’s odd claim, the Costa Hawkins Act, which mandated vacancy decontrol in 1999, brought back rental units which would otherwise never have been available again—lots of units—enough to cause rents to drop dramatically, and the advertising of vacancies to become pervasive. 

Certain individuals who regard themselves as liberal have made it clear that they wish I would be silent on this topic; they seem to think that saying anything bad about rent control is naughty, even if it’s true. But Berkeley is suffering the consequences of the housing shortage which began in 1979, and people will not believe that it is over until they understand its origin. I suggest that exhaustive review of Berkeley’s history be required of everyone employed by the city or engaged in city politics, because failure to study the history of a town leads to disastrous land use choices in the present, and to problems forever into the future. 


Gale Garcia is a Berkeley resident.