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Gentrifying Berkeley

Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Two years ago, the SF Gate website posted a picture of me squatting with my hands in my face, in the median of University Ave. in Berkeley.

This picture dramatized the shock and loss that came with the 3-alarm fire that occurred at the Nash Hotel, where I had been temporarily staying. Last night, I attended a sad vigil at Civic Center Park in for the victims of the balcony collapse at the Library Gardens apartments in Berkeley. There is a connection here.

Mayor Tom Bates’ legacy in Berkeley is the numerous “luxury” apartment buildings, which have replaced popular businesses, affordable residences and parking lots. The dismissive euphemism for this dynamic is “gentrification.” The Library Gardens was one of the first such projects, now characterized by developers and planning officials as “an example of what NOT to build.”

Berkeley rents are on par with San Francisco, with 1-bedroom apartments going for up to $3000.

SF Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross noted that the Library Gardens is owned by Greystar, Inc. of Charleston, S.C., which boasts of being “the largest operator of apartments in the United States.” This project was born into and from controversy. Many objected because it replaced a parking structure used to support the library and nearby businesses on nearby Shattuck Ave. Mayor Bates used his influence to step on toes and kick shins to get it done.

Matier and Ross also reported that Berkeley rents have risen between 10-30% over the past year. This is a shocking “low-ball” estimate. The past six months have left me researching rental housing options again, and I’m finding more like a 50%+ increase in that time.

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The vigil was characterized by a somber silence, sounds of sobs and weeping, and people hugging. People prayed, some crossed themselves and I recited Kaddish. A speaker invited us to carry candles to the scene of the tragedy two blocks away. Along the way we helped re-light one another’s candles in the night breeze. When the shrine had been moved to the scene of the tragedy, the prayers resumed.

I was at the Nash Hotel in June 2013, expecting a brief stay while my new residence was made ready. On June 11, I was meditating in my bed when I heard noises of chaos and commotion. I walked into the hall and saw huge columns of black smoke billowing from part of the building, and I waited on a fire escape for 20 minutes until the Berkeley Fire Department activated the ladder.

While I was displaced to a motel in Oakland by the Red Cross, the plans for my new home fell apart. Thankfully, I found the home where I am now—but facing eviction, because my malicious landlord has engaged in a brazen campaign of “constructive eviction.” He has breached two agreements administered by the Rent Board, withheld repairs ordered by the Housing Inspector and aggressively interfered with my effort to bring in a housemate to share the rent. So, I petitioned the Rent Board for a 50% rent reduction. They agreed to hear my petition, but the timing of their scheduling leaves all my rights and arguments as a moot point, because I have to be out before my complaint can be heard

For the past six months I’ve been frantically trying to find an affordable place to move, while trying to preserve the security of my home at the same time. I lost. When my search began in December 2014, some one bedrooms were available for under $1000/mo and 2 bedrooms for under $2000. Now Berkeley rents are on par with San Francisco, with 1-bedroom apartments going for up to $3000. This is more than the 10-30% over the year cited by Matier & Ross. They weren’t euphemizing the situation; their source was.

Mayor Bates made a big deal about mitigating and preventing homelessness in his campaigns. His grandstanding included a camping trip with homeless people in People’s Park. That impressed a lot of people around here. But since taking office his actions have increased homelessness by eliminating many affordable housing options, in favor of “luxury” apartments.

In view of the balcony tragedy, there should be a moratorium on the construction of any new such buildings in Berkeley until the cause of this tragedy is resolved.

scott prosterman

H. Scott Prosterman