In April 2020, Natalie Logusch received a letter from UC Berkeley threatening to evict her and demolish her home. Logusch has lived in the building for eleven years. She is one of nine tenants who live at 1921 Walnut Street, a 112-year-old rent-controlled building in Berkeley that is currently set to be developed by the university and turned into student housing. “Some tenants have lived here as much as twelve years,” says Logusch, “the person below me has lived here over twenty-five years, and above me is the third generation of a single family to live here!”
The development is part of UC Berkeley’s master housing plan. The idea is to build a student housing complex called the Anchor House for transfer students on a site bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street, and Berkeley Way. To do this, they would need to demolish the current building at 1921 Walnut Street and construct a new building which would house 75 students—part of a much larger housing complex that would provide 760 beds in total.
The master plan also includes a housing development on People’s Park. In both 1921 Walnut Street and People’s Park, UC Berkeley will be displacing current residents in order to meet the demands for student housing. The movements to protect these two locations, and the people who call them home, are interlinked by their common goal to preserve community and make Berkeley an affordable place to live. About a hundred people showed up on a sunny Saturday afternoon on April 24 to protest the university’s development at these two locations. Students, Walnut Street tenants, and long-time People’s Park activists congregated in front of 1921 Walnut Street.
The group walked together through the streets of Downtown Berkeley chanting, “Hey Hey UCB, leave the Walnut tenants be!” And “Whose university? Our university!” They ended the march at People’s Park.
Katie Latimer is a UC Berkeley graduate student and protest organizer from the United Front Against Displacement (UFAD), an organization uniting working-class people against the forces of gentrification and displacement. She explained that the physical route of the march, from Walnut Street to People’s Park, aims to bridge the two struggles and build collaboration.
“Trying to address each issue individually is like playing whack-a-mole,” Latimer says. “It’s all part of a broader picture. There’s only one way to fight back against this broader trend—people must be united.”
Michael Delacour, one of the founders of People’s Park back in 1969, was particularly impressed by the number of university students who came out to protest. “University students come and leave after a certain amount of time,” he says, “but their biggest impact is in their numbers.” He’s hoping for an even bigger turnout next time. “I think if we could get 5,000 students to show up to a mass rally, that would really show the Chancellor that we have their support.”
Capital Strategies, UC Berkeley’s housing development company, has offered a compensation and relocation package to the 1921 Walnut Street tenants. According to a UC Berkeley Public Affairs announcement, the compensation includes “assistance with locating comparable and available housing that is nearby and maintains their standard of living” and “payment equal to 42 months of the difference between what their new rent will be and their current rent, or the difference between their new rent and 30 percent of their total household income, whichever would provide them with greater benefit.”
Logusch says that the compensation package has been difficult to understand for the residents of the Walnut Street home. “We have to hire a lawyer to even understand their package,” she said. “In their messaging they say it’s ‘generous’ but really, they are offering the bare minimum required by the law. It’s intended to manipulate public opinion to brush aside the fact that UC is destroying our homes and demolishing affordable housing stock in Berkeley forever.”
At the time of publication, representatives from Capital Strategies had not replied to Street Spirit’s requests for comment.
As a state entity, the university of California is not beholden to many local laws, even though it exists within Berkeley and profoundly impacts the surrounding community.
Berkeley’s laws protect tenants of affordable housing units, but the City of Berkeley has little leverage to require the university to follow those laws. In June 2020, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrote a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ advocating for the preservation of the 1921 Walnut Street building. He called for UC Berkeley to voluntarily honor local laws. The letter argues that the university’s Anchor House complex could still be successful without the demolition of 1921 Walnut Street. He writes, “I believe UC Berkeley can exclude this site from its development plans and still achieve a substantial number of housing units, given project height at 16 stories.”
Of all the UC campuses, UC Berkeley houses the lowest percentage of its student body. This has caused most students to flood the private housing market, which has contributed to rising prices in housing. Many students end up living far from campus. A 2017 housing survey from UC Berkeley’s Office of Planning and Analysis showed that 10 percent of student respondents had experienced homelessness at some point while at UC Berkeley. Proponents of the project argue that this is a reason why it’s important to turn the building into student housing: that by helping students maintain housing, they will not be adding strain to the rental market. However, when looking at their development plans as a whole, this argument falls short. Even if UC Berkeley built all the housing proposed in their LRDP exactly as planned, there would only be enough beds to house 31 percent of its population, leaving the remaining 70 percent of campus students, faculty, and staff to live off-campus. This was just one of the criticisms made by Jordan Klein, the acting head of the City of Berkeley’s Planning Department, in his scathing review of the university’s LRDP at the end of April.
Opponents of the project stress that affordable housing in Berkeley is so rare that low-income tenants literally cannot afford to move while there are so few affordable options elsewhere.
Dayton Andrews, a leader from theUFAD, says, “The working class people who live there, families, are not making a white-collar professional income. They live there because it’s affordable. Promising to find them housing somewhere else is a loose promise.”
In response to the eviction warnings, the tenants of the North Berkeley home formed the 1921 Walnut Street Tenants Association, which meets weekly on zoom and maintains the save1921walnut.org website and twitter account. However, even as a group the tenants have found it difficult to express their requests and concerns to UC officials.
“It’s very hard to understand what’s going on,” says Logusch, “The Walnut Street Tenants Association has asked [the university] for meetings and listening sessions and they have refused to meet with us. The ASUC [Associated Students of the University of California] and City of Berkeley have asked on our behalf and they still will not meet with us. So much of what UC does is behind closed doors.”
Along with People’s Park organizers, Walnut Street tenants are asking for more structural channels for communication. Amanda Hill, a second-year student at UC Berkeley and one of the only students on the university’s committee for construction at People’s Park, says “There are a lot of voices that need to be at these tables that the university is not listening to. That’s what allows projects like this to push through.” She advocates for greater student representation on university committees and better collaboration between the school and the City.
Greater representation would allow residents of Walnut Street and People’s Park to express the value of the spaces they occupy—a value that extends beyond the price tag of housing them elsewhere. For many residents, there’s more than just the cost of rent that makes them want to continue living in their home. Like the People’s Park community, they have built tight-knit communities over many years and in some cases many generations.
“We all know each other and look out for each other here,” says Logusch.
Simone Rotman is an intern at Youth Spirit Artworks.