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Opinion: It’s time to pass Berkeley’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act

This was originally published in Berkeleyside. To read the original publication, please go here.


TOPA would provide tenants an opportunity to remain in their homes, build generational wealth, and keep Berkeley diverse and vibrant.


By Chris Schildt, Leah Simon-Weisberg, Michael Smith and Cindy WuDec. 02, 2022, 8:00 a.m.


Amid great economic turmoil, having a decent place to live has never been more important for building a sustainable future in Berkeley. But the cost of housing here denies many of us stable and affordable homes. Coming out of this election season, the Berkeley City Council and Mayor Jesse Arreguín must continue to show strong leadership to ensure our community remains a place of belonging and opportunity for all.


The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) would provide tenants an opportunity to remain in their homes, build generational wealth, and keep Berkeley diverse and vibrant. That’s why Berkeley tenants, community leaders, and a coalition of endorsers representing over 50 grassroots organizations are calling on the City Council and mayor to act now and pass TOPA this December.


Tenants need this chance now more than ever. The dual crises of a decades-long shortage of affordable homes and widespread rent debt from the COVID-19 pandemic have destabilized scores of renters and inequitably impacted tenants who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, who are disproportionately rent-burdened and most at risk of displacement.


Berkeley tenant Deanna Niebuhr knows the need for TOPA first-hand. “Even though my fellow tenants and I have lived here for decades, our landlord didn’t think to tell us they were selling. We are now negotiating a joint purchase by neighbors, but only after a real risk of being displaced by big developers. If TOPA had been in place, we could have avoided this scare,” said Niebuhr.


For decades Berkeley has over-produced luxury without providing sufficient affordable housing. In the most recent Housing Element planning cycle, the city produced over 220% of needed market-rate housing, but only 45% of required units for low- and very-low-income residents. As a result, Berkeley lost much of its diversity – a shocking 21% of its Black population from 2005 to 2019.


Our fraught history has led to this displacement. Berkeley is the origin of racially restrictive covenants and single-family zoning that drove residential segregation throughout the nation and still disproportionately affects our Black communities today. TOPA is a vital step forward for Berkeley in repairing the long history of housing discrimination and exclusion by creating a better housing ecosystem for all – not just those who are wealthy enough to buy homes here.


We can’t stand by as our neighbors face displacement. We applaud Mayor Arreguín’s vision in developing TOPA to keep our neighbors housed, and now urge him to put TOPA to a vote.

“The most important policies always face noisy opposition from those who stand to profit from the status quo. Justice demands our elected leaders prioritize laws like TOPA that promise to change our system to better serve the needs of all in our community. Many Berkeleyans are struggling to remain in the place they call home. City Council must stand up for these neighbors by passing TOPA now,” said former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport.

Many Berkeley property owners support TOPA. “As a long-time small landlord in Berkeley, I believe TOPA is vital. All Berkeley residents should have an opportunity for home ownership, and TOPA provides essential support for renters seeking the stability of owning the place they call home,” said Berkeley landlord Rahel Smith.


Everyone deserves a right to housing and should have a chance to own their home. Passing TOPA is a critical part of providing that opportunity while advancing equity. With the passage of Measure M, Berkeley now has additional funds to implement TOPA. Let’s build a future where all Berkeleyans have stable and affordable homes. Please, Mayor Arreguín and Berkeley City Council, act now to put TOPA to a vote! We are ready to rally behind you.

Join us and other Bay Area TOPA campaigns for a TOPA NOW rally at noon on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2180 Milvia Street in Berkeley.


Chris Schildt is a Berkeley resident, chair of the Berkeley Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, and director of Housing Justice at Urban Habitat; Leah Simon-Weisberg is chair of the Berkeley Rent Board, legal director of The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and adjunct professor at Hastings School of Law; Reverend Michael A. Smith is the pastor at McGee Avenue Baptist Church, president of the Berkeley Black Ecumenical Ministers Alliance, and founding executive director of the Center for Food Faith and Justice; and Cindy Wu is the executive director of LISC Bay Area and former president of the San Francisco Planning Commission.

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