Council to Look at Condo Conversion, Telegraph Ave.

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 23, 2006

Converting rented apartments to condominiums is on the agenda again today (Tuesday). Last week the council reinstated a lapsed condominium conversion ordinance, which caps allowable conversion at 100 units each year and sets a conversion fee at 12.5 percent of the selling price. 

The Tenant-Owner Partnership for Affordable Homes is circulating a petition that would put a competing condominium conversion ordinance on Berkeley’s November ballot. 

With an affirmative vote of the council today, the city manager will prepare a report on the ballot initiative’s impacts, including the impact on city finances, the availability and location of housing, the impact on infrastructure and more. 

The initiative calls for: 

• Conversion of up to 500 units when the vacancy rate is at 5 percent or more as established by independent analysis.  

• A conversion fee of $8 per square foot. 

• A 5 percent discount to purchase and the right of first refusal for pre-existing tenants. If these tenants don’t purchase the unit, they do not have the right to stay in the unit. 

• Landlords who go out of the rental business can evict tenants who do not purchase their units under the Ellis Act.  

On its website, the Berkeley Property Owners Association, which is not supporting the initiative per se, touts it as an approach it has “long fought for.” The association says the measure will empower tenants to buy their own homes at a “substantial [5 percent] discount” and protects tenants from tenants-in-common conversions. 

In an e-mail responding to a request for an interview, David M. Wilson, attorney representing supporters of the initiative, speaks in opposition to the current ordinance, arguing it “does nothing to solve the real housing crisis in Berkeley which is the lack of affordable ownership opportunities: in the year 2000 homeowners were about 42 percent of the population. Now they are probably about 38 percent. This is because the city and the university have added thousands of rental units to housing stock.” 

He further contends that “middle-class families (including teachers, firefighters, and police) cannot enter the market. Tenants, instead of moving up to homeownership in Berkeley, move out to other places.”  

Arguing against the proposed ballot initiative, Rent Stabilization Board Member Jesse Arreguin, says the proposed law would cause conversion of affordable rent-controlled apartments, leaving newer apartments, which don’t fall under rent control, vulnerable to conversion. Affordable units would be removed from the market, he argued. 

“Reducing housing stock drives prices up,” Arreguin said, adding that “buying a condo is not possible for people earning $30,000 or less.” 

The proposed ballot measure could bring radical change to Berkeley, making it “a city of people of higher income and less diversity,” he said. 


Clean elections 

The City Council will vote on whether to place an initiative on the ballot which would support a charter amendment in favor of public financing of elections.  

According to the ballot measure as written, the present system of raising funds for campaigns “creates a danger of corruption by encouraging elected officials to take money from private interests that are directly affected by governmental actions, forces candidates to raise larger and larger percentages of money from interest groups that have a specific financial stake in matters before the Berkeley City government ..., violates the rights of all citizens to equal … participation in the democratic process, [and] disadvantages challengers.” 

The remedy would be to have candidates collect $5 donations from a large number of individuals in order to qualify for public financing—a candidate for mayor would have to collect $5 from 600 people and a City Council candidate would have to collect $5 each from 150 people. 

In return, council candidates would get $20,000 to spend on the campaign and a mayoral candidate would get $140,000. Provisions are made to increase the amount for candidates facing challengers who have not accepted public financing. 

“It’s a voluntary system,” said Sam Ferguson, who has worked on the ballot measure.  

The system is already in place in Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M., Ferguson said, noting, “It allows candidates to run on the basis of ideas, not how much money they can raise.” 


West Berkeley Bowl 

The Zoning Adjustments Board approved the West Berkeley Bowl project on April 25, which, according to a staff report, is likely to be appealed. The City Council is being asked to vote to call for a public hearing on the project for June 13. 


Assisting Telegraph Avenue businesses 

The council will be asked to vote, in concept, for an economic development assistance package to improve the Telegraph Avenue commercial area, including an increased police presence, better lighting and street cleaning, streamlining permits for the district, improved social services and launching a joint marketing effort with the university. An affirmative vote will have the city manager return with a detailed plan. 


Other matters 

The council will vote on upgrading Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, addressing hypertension in the African-American community, making sure the Association for Sports Field Users is documenting and using city funds correctly and rebuilding homes after a disaster “by right” on the same footprint as were previously located.  

A council workshop on the budget related to infrastructure begins at 5 p.m., with the regular city council meeting at 7 p.m.