Rent Control and Neighborhood Preservation

Residential Rent Control

ne of the decade’s most controversial issues was rent control. The cost of housing in the Bay Area rose steadily in the 1970s, and in 1972 BCA responded with a successful initiative establishing public regulation of rents. The measure was bitterly opposed by most landlords, resisted by moderate office holders, and struck down by the courts. The 1978 passage of State Proposition 13, which substantially reduced landlords’ property taxes but provided no relief for renters, finally galvanized Berkeley voters. A 1980 initiative established one of the strongest rent control measures in the nation. However, subsequent state legislation significantly weakened the Berkeley law by severely limiting the scope and power of local rent control policies. Other Berkeley housing-related initiatives included successful campaigns to establish a Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance and defeat the West Berkeley Industrial Park redevelopment project.  Supporters argued that both Neighborhood Preservation and the defeat of the proposed industrial park would prevent the loss of affordable housing in the Berkeley flatlands. 

by Charles Wollenberg

Poster Register to Vote for Lower Rent
Poster Vote for rent control issues

Rent Control Timeline

1971 President Richard Nixon establishes nationwide wage and price controls, including rent control. Phase-out scheduled for January 1973.

1972 Citizens of Berkeley pass a rent control initiative. Rent controls are stayed by the courts.

1976 California Supreme Court rules the ordinance unconstitutional. Sets requirements for rent control to be constitutional.

1977 Rent control initiative fails.

1978 Rent control initiative passes. It rebates 80% of Proposition 13 property tax savings to the tenants and sunsets December 31, 1979.

1979 City Council passes temporary 6-month extension of rent controls through June 1980.

1980 Initiative establishing permanent rent control passes with 57% of the vote. Requires registration of rents and limits annual rent increases even when a tenant moves out and a new tenant moves in. Rent Board is appointed by the City Council. The courts refuse to stay application of the ordinance.

1982 Initiatives establish major penalties for non-compliance, which ends landlord refusal to register, and make the Rent Board elected rather than appointed. Tenant slate elected.

1984 California Supreme Court upholds the rent control ordinance.

1990 Courts rule that a supplementary rent increase is legally required. The landlord slate wins control of rent board and increases rents by one-third.

1995 California state legislature overrides local rent ordinances in Berkeley and other cities. The law exempts single-family homes and requires “vacancy decontrol,” so that the landlord can increase rents by any amount after a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled apartment. This provision is phased in over the next three years.

1999, January 1 Vacancy decontrol takes effect in Berkeley.

By Stephen Barton

In the 1970s and 1980s, rent control was the local public policy that most clearly defined who was a radical. In 21st-century Berkeley, rent control is widely accepted as a common-sense means of protecting tenants from displacement by rapid rent increases resulting from a severe housing shortage. In the 1970s it was considered a radical challenge to private property rights, part of a larger tenant movement that included rent strikes, lawsuits over poor conditions and efforts to create limited equity cooperatives such as Savo Island that would take housing out of the for-profit market.

Tenant advocates argued that landlords received unearned, windfall profits from the rising demand for housing caused by expansion of the University of California and were inflicting hardship on tenants. Landlords charged that rent control would result in poor maintenance and stop new construction (new construction was exempt). When it finally became permanent in 1980, rent control enabled tenants as well as homeowners to put down roots in Berkeley and slowed the decline in Black population. It also resulted in a major shift towards homeownership, since single-family homes became less profitable as rentals and more profitable to sell to owner-occupants.  

By Steven Barton

Commercial Rent Control

Poster, vote yes for rent control, Save Elmwood

Saving Ozzie’s

In the fall of 1981, on my way home with a cheese Danish from Nabolom bakery, I noticed a woman at a card table in front of Ozzie’s Soda Fountain. Curious, I walked over and was told by the woman, Barbara Lubin, that Ozzie’s rent had been doubled and he was in danger of being evicted. She asked me to sign a petition to persuade Berkeley’s City Council to save Ozzie’s.

Having been active in local Berkeley politics since the late 1960s, I was certain Barbara’s petition would have zero impact on the existing Council majority. I told Barbara that what might save Ozzie’s was a citizen’s initiative: rent control for Elmwood’s commercial district. I’d already worked on several initiatives, including residential rent control.

I recommended contacting attorney Myron Moskovitz, who had drafted a commercial rent control ordinance for Carmel, California. I also suggested June 1982 for their initiative to be on the ballot — along with my initiative to move Berkeley’s elections from April to November. Both initiatives were approved on the June 1982 ballot by significant margins: 60%/40% for Elmwood commercial rent control and 68%/32% for the election date change.

Unfortunately, Elmwood’s commercial rent control ordinance was only in effect for five and a half years. The ordinance was never invalidated by the courts. It met its demise on January 1, 1988, when California’s legislature banned cities from enacting commercial rent control. This ban came after a 1986 progressive Berkeley City Council expanded commercial rent control to the Telegraph Avenue and West Berkeley commercial districts and landlords lobbied the legislature.

Despite its short duration, Elmwood’s commercial rent control helped Ozzie remain at his soda fountain until his retirement in 1989. It also enabled a number of the Elmwood commercial tenants to purchase their buildings, thereby avoiding future rent increases and evictions.

by Marty Schiffenbaur

Picture of Ozzie's Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, 1971
At Ozzie’s Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, 1971. From Left to Right: Barbara Lubin, Charles “Ozzie” Osborn, and Jean Parsons.Behind them is the table where volunteers collected signatures to put for Measure I on the 1982 ballot.

Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, 1973

Tamara Nicoloff Haw remembers:

My mother [Martha Nicoloff] grew up in Chicago’s Southside during the Depression, where she heard bullets ricocheting between the tenement buildings. In Berkeley, she loved the small neighborhoods of the flatlands where she lived. She spent many years trying to save these neighborhoods. My earliest memory was of the late 60s when she helped create and then save People’s Park Annex (now called Ohlone Park). She had been upset that neighbors were not notified before big six-story buildings were built beside their small homes.

My mother, Ken Hughes and other neighbors designed an ordinance which would give the immediate community a say before the buildings were approved for construction. She remembered how in Chicago many tall, uninhabited tenement buildings had been hastily and inexpensively built and then remained an eyesore in the community. She didn’t want that to happen to Berkeley. After months of political meetings and writings, the activists were thrilled that the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance passed in 1973. My mother also supported the preservation of the Ocean View neighborhood in West Berkeley. She wanted to save the low-rent homes with historic character instead of clearing whole neighborhoods for future development. We could have lost all of the West Berkeley housing for an industrial park.                                                              

 (Martha Nicoloff also ran twice for City Council.) 

Left, the house that was going to be demolished, owned by then Berkeley Mayor Wallace Johnson and rented out to a single mother and son. The house was slated to be demolished. Right: protesters.

Left: The eviction and demolition protested by the Neighborhood Preservation Committee. Right: the house being demolished.

Landmark Preservation Ordinance, 1974

“The Vice President of Berkeley’s Civic Art Commission has appealed to fellow commissioners to help preserve [the 1892 Ernest Coxhead] house at 2431 Ellsworth St. that has significant historical features. The council members unanimously endorsed her appeal and appealed in turn to City Council. The residence is slated to be demolished to make room for a new apartment structure if it cannot be moved off its site before March 1.”

                                                      Berkeley Gazette, February 12, 1968

Left: one of the early (1892) Berkeley brown shingles by Ernest Coxhead, with beautiful redwood paneling. Despite efforts to save or at least find a new place for the house, the building was demolished in 1968 and replaced with the apartment building, right.

Shirley Dean remembers:

In 1968 Fred Tamke was the chair of the Architectural Heritage Committee of Urban Care. He and others were galvanized by the need to save historic buildings, such as 2431 Ellsworth, from demolition. Fred, in particular, was very energetic about getting a strong preservation ordinance passed in Berkeley and worked with mayor Warren Widener.

Widener was agreeable to a preservation ordinance—as long as it would help all neighborhoods. William Walker and Eugene Troupe from South Berkeley, Martha Nicoloff from central Berkeley, as well as people like Lesley Emmington, Richard Ehrenburger, and myself worked on getting such an ordinance passed. Labor attorney Carl Bunch actually wrote the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. 

Our strategy was to first generate public interest in preservation. In 1971, we got The Berkeley Gazette to run a series of articles featuring beautiful photographs and informative commentaries regarding Berkeley’s architectural heritage. In that same year, we ran Greyhound-size buses that couldn’t be missed on the narrow streets of the Berkeley Hills carrying people to tour Maybeck and Morgan open houses. We generated a lot of attention! 

Unfortunately, in 1972 Fred Tamke died of a heart attack. We vowed to get the ordinance approved in his honor. The City Council held the first public hearing on Urban Care’s proposed ordinance in November 1972. City Council Meetings followed. 

The ordinance was finally adopted in 1974, and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) was born shortly after, with Lesley Emmington as their first president.Looking back, it is clear that the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance has had a profound positive and lasting impact on our City. At first, we worked for it because of the beauty and sense of history it brought to our lives. Today, we have come to fully realize the additional immense environmental benefits that flow from preserving what has already been built.

First Church of Christ, Scientist by Bernard Maybeck (1910). Landmarked in 1975 under the 1974 Landmark Preservation Ordinance.

By Jeanine Castello-Lin

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