Natalie Logusch is suing the UC Board of Regents to pressure them to release public records she requested about a year ago related to UC Berkeley’s demolition and development plans that could displace her and her neighbors from the apartment building where they are tenants, at 1921 Walnut Street. One of Logusch’s records requests asks for all public comments in response to the UC’s development plans, as well as the environmental impact reports related to 1921 Walnut Street. Releasing those comments, she said, could allow her to build a stronger movement by finding other supporters interested in saving the building.
“Who are the other people who oppose this?” Logusch said. “I have no idea because UC won’t put that information out there. And that’s probably part of the reason they haven’t released the records.”
According to Kyle Gibson, Communications Director for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, Logusch could receive the records soon.
“The university is discussing a settlement of the lawsuit with Ms. Logusch’s counsel that includes production of documents,” he said.
For Logusch, suing to get the UC Regents to release their records is part of the broader effort to save her and her neighbor’s homes. According to Paul Wallace, another Walnut Street tenant, he and his neighbors have requested meetings with the university about the development that could displace them, both on their own and through Berkeley’s student union, the ASUC, but the university has always refused.
In a letter sent in late August of last year to Logusch, Wallace, and other 1921 Walnut Street tenants, UC Berkeley Real Estate Director Michelle De Guzman wrote “The University will not be holding in-person or virtual conversations regarding the property for the foreseeable future.” Wallace confirmed that the university has never met with him and other tenants in his building. He says the only avenue he has had for the Regents to hear his concerns is by calling into their meetings and making public comments which are limited to one minute.
“You want to appeal to keep your home but you only have a minute to do it,” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”
Logusch and Wallace are two of seven tenants, including one child, who currently live in the 112 year old apartment building on 1921 Walnut Street, next to UC Berkeley’s campus. These tenants have lived there between six and over 25 years. In April of last year, UC Berkeley delivered a letter to the Walnut Street tenants telling them the Regents planned to demolish and redevelop the property they live in. While the letter stated there was “no imminent action planned,” it stressed tenants, who would be offered a relocation plan, could be forced to leave after being given 90 days notice.
In July of 2020, the UC Regents purchased the Walnut Street building from its previous owner, Waterbury Properties. Since the housing units were covered under rent control, City of Berkeley law had limited the amount that Waterbury Properties could raise the rent at 1921 Walnut Street per year. But the Walnut Street tenants may have lost these protections when UC Berkeley purchased the property.“UC Berkeley is exempt from any local zoning and housing ordinances,” said John Selawsky, a Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner. “In terms of state and local law that makes them a sovereign entity.”
Due to local and state laws that cover the City of Berkeley, if a private developer demolished and then rebuilt housing on the same property, they would have to relocate tenants and then provide them with a right to return. If they demolished rent controlled units, they would have to rebuild the same amount of units at a lower than market rate rental price. But these laws do not apply to UC Berkeley.
“These current tenants could lose housing,” said Selawsky. “But Berkeley could also lose a rent controlled building forever. There’s no provision for replacement that UC has offered.”
UC Berkeley plans to demolish 1921 Walnut Street as part of a broader plan for the area to build student housing for transfer students. The project is called Anchor House. The university says Anchor House will contain 244 apartments with 772 individual bedrooms, made possible by donations from a private donor. Gibson claims that demolishing 1921 Walnut Street will provide housing for 75 students and says that revenues the project generates “will go toward providing annual scholarships for students from underrepresented populations and first-generation college students.”
Tenants at 1921 Walnut Street disagree with UC Berkeley. Their website describes the project as “high-end student housing with luxury amenities.” They note the Anchor House plan includes 17,000 square feet of commercial retail space and amenities such as a dorm lounge and a teaching kitchen with a scullery. They think there could be enough space for student housing and for their apartments to remain if the plan did not include such amenities.
1921 Walnut Street tenants feel they have wide support for preserving their rent controlled apartments. The Berkeley Architectural Association recently released a 161 page report agreeing their apartments could be saved if the university reduced some amenities and removed the commercial spaces from the Anchor House plan. A section of the tenants’ website lists supporters including The Sierra Club, UC Berkeley staff and students, and Bay Area Tenants and Neighborhood Councils. Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board sent a letter on June 8 of last year calling for the building to be preserved, and Berkeley’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution called “Support the Preservation of 1921 Walnut Street” on July 28 of the same year. On March 18th of this year, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín spoke out at a rally in support of the 1921 Walnut Street tenants, saying “We need more student housing, but it cannot happen by eliminating existing affordable housing.”
UC Berkeley has its own supporters. The website for Anchor House shows letters of support from the Downtown Berkeley association, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. They also list support statements from four transfer students. Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and a 1967 UC Berkeley graduate, is quoted praising the Anchor House plans, and specifically the kitchens and gardens it could accommodate.
The UC Regents are offering rental assistance for Walnut Street residents for three and a half years in another apartment they deem comparable. They are offering to pay the difference each month between the new unit’s rental price and what tenants currently pay. The tenants see this as only a temporary fix, claiming that after three and a half years they will no longer be able to afford the new units. While the Regents have also offered a lump sum option to tenants, the tenants say it is not nearly enough to pay for a mortgage in Berkeley.
Wallace is unhappy with the exit package and fears what will happen if he is displaced from his home. “I’ll be driven out of California,” he said, “or certainly Berkeley.”
The 1921 Walnut Street Tenants Association has regularly written letters, commented in public meetings, and launched twitter campaigns. They organized four large protests that have attracted public figures, local politicians, and activists.
In her case, Logusch v. The UC Regents, Logusch’s lawyer, Sara B. Kohgadai, accuses the Regents of violating California’s constitution by withholding the public records. The case states that California Public Records Act requires that the UC Regents to determine if they have records within ten days and that the determination period can only be extended to 14 days. Since Logusch initially filled the requests on June 24 of last year, the UC Regents have never formally stated whether it had records Logusch requested, or stated a reason why withholding the records was subject to exemption. Instead, the Regents responded to Logusch’s follow up emails to check on her records requests with the same form letter, on three separate occasions, that attributed delays in responding to the coronavirus.
“Judging from its communications,” wrote Kohgadai in the case, “it appears [the UC Regents] violates these duties as a matter of course.”
When asked why the UC Regents has not already released the public records, UC Berkeley Capital Strategies Communications Director Kyle Gibson claimed that several other people requested the same documents around the same time as Lobusch, that the Regents responded to those requests, and they “believed [she] was among those who received the documents, but inadvertently she was not.”
Whether or not Logusch receives the documents, she is determined to keep organizing with her neighbors and their supporters to save her home.
“I will fight this every way I can,” she said. “This is my home. I am not going quietly. I will not let them displace me.”
A version of this article was originally published on Medium by Zack Haber. A version of the story also appeared in The Berkeley Post and the Post News Group website.
Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.