Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announces Berkeley’s TOPA legislation.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announces Berkeley’s TOPA legislation. (Alastair Boone)

On Tuesday, January 14, heavily armed and militarized Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies used a battering ram to break down the door of a home in West Oakland and evict a group of black moms who had been occupying the property in a housing justice protest. The deputies arrested two of the co-founders of the organization known as Moms 4 Housing, along with two of their supporters.

Three weeks later, the moms stood beside city councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas on the steps of Oakland city hall as she announced the “Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.”

“The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act is a way we mitigate rampant speculation that’s happening, or displacement,” Carroll Fife told Street Spirit. Fife is director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Oakland, which is part of a coalition of groups who have worked on TOPA legislation. “Instead of people getting put on the street or having to find housing in this market that’s just insane, they can have the chance to buy a home.”

On February 20, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announced a similar policy, flanked by Moms 4 Housing co-founder Dominique Walker and representatives of community groups in the East Bay who helped draft the legislation.

Arreguín said TOPA will help keep more housing units in Berkeley permanently affordable and promote “democratic control and ownership” of housing stock in the city.

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, known as TOPA, gives renters a right of first refusal if their landlord or building owner decides to sell the property where they live. It’s meant to take a big swing at stopping gentrification and displacement, and to allow tenants, affordable housing providers, co-ops or community land trusts to step in and buy property from private owners, and slow the speed at which developers and speculators flip homes to become luxury dwellings.

Here is how it works, according to Seema Rupani of the East Bay Community Law Center, which drafted Berkeley’s TOPA ordinance and was involved in an early version of TOPA in Oakland in 2018.

  • When an owner decides to sell a rental property, they have to inform the tenants living there. The landlord will simultaneously notify a list of affordable housing developers that they wish to sell.
  • The tenants have a period of time to organize, come together and make an offer on the property. Or, they can assign their rights to one of the affordable housing developers to make an offer to purchase the property and eventually become their new landlord.
  • If the tenants themselves decide not to make an offer, the affordable housing developers can step in and decide to make an offer on the property. They will be bound by several parameters; for example, they must keep the property permanently affordable and have democratic residential control of the building.
  • Once the owner receives an offer from tenants or affordable housing developers, they can accept or reject it. If the owner accepts the offer, they will qualify for tax incentives. If they reject it, the owner can solicit other buyers on the private market. Finally, the owner has to return to the tenant or affordable housing developer and give them the chance to match any such offer from the private market. This is called the right of first refusal.

Washington, D.C. already has a version of TOPA in place, which Bas says is a model for Oakland’s planned legislation. The D.C. policy kept 1,400 housing units affordable in its first decade.

“It’s going to make sure that tenants have the first right to purchase their homes. It will completely relieve our displacement and gentrification crisis. It will help reduce homelessness,” Bas says.

One state lawmaker is also floating related legislation. On February 19, Berkeley’s Democratic State Senator Nancy Skinner introduced SB 1079. Under her bill, a corporation with a residential property kept vacant for at least 90 consecutive days must offer it for sale to a land trust or community organization before listing it on the open market—and the bill gives city and county governments the explicit authority to acquire these properties by eminent domain. It will slow real-estate speculators who snap up foreclosed properties.

Carroll Fife told reporters at Bas’ press conference that advocates have been working on the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act in Oakland
for years, and that the organizing of Moms 4 Housing “lifted up and expedited” the idea.

Similarly, at the Berkeley press conference, Arreguin mentioned that advocates and legislators in Berkeley started crafting this legislation three years ago when city staff were direct- ed to research the policy. He said the Berkeley policy is now a blueprint for the one in Oakland.

‘This is going to help a whole lot of people.’

As written, TOPA would not only give tenants the right to buy their homes. The cities of Berkeley and Oakland are also planning to help ten- ants afford to make these purchases, and make sure the program funding benefits longtime low-income residents of color. Oakland already has $14 million set aside from Measure KK, a bond passed in 2017, that can help tenants purchase their homes under the new proposed TOPA measure.

Carroll Fife says this is how Oakland will prioritize its most vulnerable residents to benefit from TOPA. “If your [building] owner is going to displace you, you can access these funds the city has, which is about $300,000 per unit.”

But the vice-chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, Leah Si- mon-Weisberg—an attorney who also represents Moms 4 Housing—told reporters that both Oakland and Berkeley will have to find additional funding to make TOPA an effective tool for struggling renters to remain in their homes.

In Berkeley, Mayor Arreguín says the city received money from the San Francisco Foundation to implement TOPA. He says Bay Area cities will need to work with banks and financial institutions to “create the resources so that tenants are able to take advantage of their right of first offer.”

The Oakland City Council’s Com- munity and Economic Development Committee is expected to vote on the TOPA proposal on March 24th. In Berkeley, the bill will face a committee vote on March 5th.

Tolani King of Moms 4 Housing told reporters that while the legislation would not have helped the group stave off eviction from the West Oakland home where they lived until January, “this is gonna help a whole lot of other people.”

Nikki Fortunato Bas also asserted that TOPA would benefit black working-class families, who were disproportionately harmed by the foreclosure crisis. “Black homeowners are 1.7 times less likely to own their homes than white homeowners,” she says. “So this particular legislation, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, will allow black families to become homeowners again, to stay in Oakland.”

Opposition to TOPA has already materialized in Oakland. Opponents have created a Facebook page, a Change.org petition and a website called “Stop TOPA Oakland.” The group has garnered over 200 petition signatures against TOPA and plans to appear at Oakland city council meetings to voice opposition to the measure. In posts, they allege TOPA infringes their rights to sell units at market rate, that it will create red tape when trying to sell a property, and that nonprofits could “exploit” property owners.

Seema Rupani of the East Bay Community Law Center says this is incorrect. “TOPA gives owners who want to sell their properties a chance to be a part of the solution by selling it to ten- ants or affordable housing developers. TOPA does not compel owners to sell, nor does it require owners to sell for a below-market price.”

If the measures pass, Oakland and Berkeley would become the first cities in California to enshrine these rights for tenants.

Ariel Boone is a freelance journalist and reporter for KPFA News in Oakland, California. She previously worked at Democracy Now! in New York.