Public Comment

Commentary: Renters’ Units Should Not Be Converted By SHARON HUDSON

Friday March 10, 2006

David Wilson, in his Feb. 28 letter, supports the conversion of rental units to condos, as a way of improving the opportunity for home ownership, reducing the rental vacancy rate, and rehabilitating dilapidated rent-controlled units.  

Mr. Wilson suggests that condos are the solution for “persons who want to put down roots in the community.” This reveals that Mr. Wilson does not understand or value the tenant community. About 60 percent of Berkeleyans are renters, and about half of renters are students (and young enough to be “short-term”), so that means that up to a quarter of Berkeley residents are long-term renters. I certainly hope that Mr. Wilson does not think that these 25,000 people do not have “roots in the community.”  

I have been a renter in Berkeley since 1971; I have lived in my current location for 26 years. My “roots in the community” match most of the homeowners in my neighborhood. As for our contribution to the community, long-term renters struggle much harder than most homeowners to maintain the livability of Berkeley, because almost all detriments are directed toward high-density parts of town where most renters live. 

I agree with Mr. Wilson that more condos could fill a needed housing niche in Berkeley. However, I strongly disagree that this should be accomplished through rental conversions. It should be accomplished through new construction of high-quality condos in appropriate locations. 

Tenants have limited housing options. About 40 percent of renters spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent, and probably most of these spend much more. Most of these people will never be able to afford condos. Tenants in all the newly constructed rental units around town are not protected by rent ceilings under rent control. Their rents can be raised by any amount every year. It was this untenable situation that brought about rent control in 1979.  

Such housing insecurity makes these units undesirable for long-term residents, and almost guarantees that they will be rented by short-termers. If we can, we should bring these new units under rent control, but if not, then building condos instead might improve the community “roots,” at least in areas where student demand is not high. 

On the other hand, we need to do everything we can to protect the existing supply of rent-controlled units in Berkeley, which enable “roots” to grow. Rent-controlled units (especially large ones) are in short supply, and will not be replaced. The worst thing for Berkeley’s housing stock would be for the cream of the rent-controlled units to be skimmed off for condos, which will surely happen if not thoroughly discouraged by strong policies.  

Although I generally oppose the removal of rent-controlled units from the market, if we truly have an excess of small rental units, we might consider permitting some of them to be refashioned into condos. A formula could be developed to permit limited condoization of some rental units, if there has been a certain vacancy rate for a certain number of years among a particular unit size. This is an option the Planning Commission might consider. 

Meanwhile, once Mr. Wilson realizes that rent control fosters long-term residency, thus providing the “roots” that he seeks, and that long-term renters contribute to the health of Berkeley’s neighborhoods and the homeowners that share them, I’m sure he will become an enthusiastic proponent of rent control.  


Sharon Hudson is a long-time resident of Berkeley’s Southside.