Condo Conversion Language Goes Before Judge

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 01, 2006

The question of changes to the law regulating condominium conversion is supposed to go before the voters in November. But Measure I is taking a detour to court today (Friday).  

The case will be heard at 9 a.m. in Dept. 31, Alameda County Superior Court, located at the U.S. Post Office, 201 13th St., Oakland. 

A decision on ballot language changes and subsequent changes in the city attorney’s analysis is time-sensitive, given that the new text must be at the Alameda County election offices by Sept. 7 in order to be printed in the voter handbook. 

Initially, it looked as if the process for putting the measure on the ballot was on track: proponents of the initiative collected the required signatures and the City Council fulfilled its duty by approving the measure for placement on the ballot.  

But it was subsequently discovered that the city attorney’s analysis of the measure and arguments in opposition to it were based on an early iteration of the ballot text and not the one the City Council had approved. 

Proponents and opponents blame each other for the error, opponents saying that the proponents changed the language of the text, while telling the city attorney they were changing only the title and proponents arguing that the changes were known to the city and the error was hers. 

How the problem was created, however, will not be the question before the judge. Rather, it is a correction, changing the old language to the new.  

However, according to Jesse Arreguin of the No on I Campaign, opponents fear proponents will take advantage of the hearing to challenge various aspects of the city attorney’s analysis and some of the language opponents have used. 

According to court documents, one key change that will be heard concerns the timeline for the right of first refusal when a unit is to be sold as a condominium. The original version said the tenant living in the unit would have “no less than 14 days from receipt of the notice to enter into a written agreement to buy such unit as their own principle residence.” 

The tenant would then have 30 days to go through escrow. 

The subsequent version talks about giving the tenant 30 days to enter into the agreement and is silent on escrow. 

Also, in the earlier version, it would be up to the city’s Housing Department to determine the vacancy rate (on which the number of units to be converted would depend). The later version talks about the determination being made by an impartial survey. 

Another question proponents may try to bring up in the court proceedings is the view that the city attorney’s analysis is wrong when she says that affordable housing fees the city will collect will be reduced by 90 percent. Currently the fee is 12.5 percent of the cost of the unit, which is collected when the property is sold. The initiative proposes a flat fee, to be collected at the time the unit is converted—not when it is sold. 

“The flat fee is much lower; it won’t dissuade people from converting,” said Michael Wilson, an attorney working with the proponents, but not representing them in court. 

Wilson further challenged a statement in Assemblymember Loni Hancock’s argument against the measure, which says that 60 percent of the children in Berkeley schools are in renter households. (Hancock’s point is that children will be displaced.)  

Another statement that proponents could challenge is the opponent’s assertion that “The measure won’t help ‘teachers … and blue-collar workers’ purchase homes. Berkeley’s average small condominium costs $500,000 requiring a yearly income of $120,000.” 

Wilson called the statement “preposterous,” saying that many condominiums cost considerably less than that price in Berkeley. 

Measure I’s Arreguin said he hopes the court procedure “will make sure the arguments are as factually correct as possible.”