February 21, 2020
By Mela Seyoum and Jacob Souza
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín held a press conference Feb. 20 to unveil the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, a city ordinance aimed at preserving affordable housing in Berkeley.
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.
The ordinance comes after a collaborative effort spearheaded by the city of Berkeley; the East Bay Community Law Center, or EBCLC; the Northern California Land Trust, or NCLT; and the Bay Area Community Land Trust.
“With funding, TOPA can level the playing field for low-income tenants and affordable housing developers, create pathways to homeownership and preserve and create more affordable housing during a time when we desperately need it,” said EBCLC attorney Seema Rupani at the press conference.
The conference was held at a co-op on Tenth Street as an example of what TOPA would be able to create, according to NCLT Executive Director Ian Winters. When the owner wanted to sell the property, the NCLT helped the co-op tenants fight to keep their housing and succeeded with funds from the city of Berkeley.
Dominique Walker, a founder of the nonprofit organization Moms 4 Housing and a resident at the co-op, was also present at the press conference. According to Arreguín, Moms 4 Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers who came together to reclaim housing in their community, helped make legislation like TOPA possible.
Walker voiced her support for the tenants for banding together. She also spoke about how TOPA will help keep housing affordable and give tenants security.
“This is what community looks like to me — the mayor is here with the people, the community is in support of the people,” Walker said at the press conference. “That’s the exact thing that we’re fighting for.”
TOPA’s announcement comes a day after California Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced SB 1079, which provides similar provisions aimed at corporately owned vacant homes. The bill comes after Moms 4 Housing occupied a corporately owned vacant home in West Oakland in November 2019.
According to Tenants Together executive director Lupe Arreola, the problem of corporate-owned homes remaining vacant started during California’s last foreclosure crisis.
“That made it possible for millions of single-family homes to go from privately owned to being owned by a big corporation,” Arreola said. “Instead of putting renters in these homes, they instead leave them vacant.”
During this time, corporations would buy foreclosed properties in economically distressed areas to either keep them vacant or sell them for “hefty profits,” according to a press release from Skinner’s office.
The bill also seeks to allow cities and counties to fine corporations that own multiple single-family houses if they keep foreclosed properties vacant for more than 90 days.
With SB 1079, if tenants choose not to purchase a property, community land trusts, nonprofit organizations and municipalities would be given a chance to buy the property at its lowest appraised value before it goes on the open market, the press release added. Local agencies would then be able to repurpose these properties for affordable housing.
“There’s not one law that is going to solve our entire housing crisis because this is a multipronged issue,” Arreola said. “But, 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.”