Berkeley apartment building,” James MacIndoe

February 21, 2020; Daily Californian and San Francisco Chronicle

“In Berkeley, California, Mayor Jesse Arreguín held a press conference February 20th to unveil the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, a city ordinance aimed at preserving affordable housing in Berkeley,” report Mela Seyoum and Jacob Souza in the Daily Californian.

Berkeley’s move comes three weeks after similar legislation was introduced into City Council in neighboring Oakland by Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas. According to Sarah Ravani in the San Francisco Chronicle, the measure could come up for a vote in Berkeley City Council as soon as March 24th. Oakland will also be holding hearings on its bill in March.

“With TOPA, tenants have the right of first offer and right of first refusal on the property they live in, giving them the chance to purchase it before the property is put on the open market. If tenants forgo this right, affordable housing developers will also have the chance to purchase the property as a subordinated right purchase,” explain Seyoum and Souza.

The Oakland bill is called the Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and was clearly motivated by the political activity of the group named in the legislation. Last November, Moms 4 Housing organized a squat of homeless families in a vacant three-bedroom house in west Oakland. The group was evicted by police in January, but under pressure, the property owner, Wedgewood, shortly afterward agreed to sell the property at market price to the nonprofit Oakland Community Land Trust, report Brentin Mock and Sarah Holder in CityLab. The land trust, in turn, will make the housing available to the families who had been squatting.

Mock and Holder add that Wedgewood told them that it has also agreed to give the Oakland Community Land Trust or other community land trusts the right of first refusal on the approximately 50 homes they currently own in Oakland, and the ones they acquire in the future. The terms of those refusal rights will be negotiated with the city.

The Oakland bill aims to increase available affordable housing. Mock and Holder report that Oakland has over 4,000 homeless residents, a 47-percent increase from two years ago. They add, “Along with homelessness rates, housing costs have climbed. Local businesses and longtime residents have been leaving historically black neighborhoods: African Americans made up just under half the city’s population in 1980; today the figure is closer to 25 percent.”

In Oakland, median household income is a little over $68,000. The median home value in Oakland according to Zillow is $765,000—more than 10 times as much as income. Berkeley faces an even more extreme gap, with a median household income near $81,000 and a median home value of $1.27 million. Not surprisingly, the majority of residents rent in both cities.

These proportions hold too in San Francisco, where the median household income is high, nearly $105,000, but the median home value is even higher, at $1.39 million. Last year, San Francisco’s board of supervisors unanimously passed similar legislation, called the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act or COPA.

There is also the possibility of statewide legislation. Berkeley’s TOPA bill, note Seyoum and Souza, was introduced just one day after California senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced Senate Bill 1079, “which provides similar provisions aimed at corporately owned vacant homes.”

According to Tenants Together executive director Lupe Arreola, the foreclosure crisis a decade ago “made it possible for millions of single-family homes to go from privately owned to being owned by a big corporation.” Arreola contends that some corporate owners, instead of renting the homes out, left them vacant. The bill would allow cities and counties to fine corporations that own multiple single-family houses if they keep foreclosed properties vacant for over 90 days. The bill also would require that a corporate owner that has held onto vacant property for more than 90 days and wants to sell its property offer to sell the property first to a community land trust or other housing nonprofit before placing the property on the market.

“There’s not one law that is going to solve our entire housing crisis because this is a multipronged issue,” Arreola acknowledges. But, he adds, “this is an important step in addressing the fact that we have so much of our housing stock vacant in the midst of a housing crisis.”—Steve Dubb