Opinion: Turning crisis into opportunity: Why Berkeley needs TOPA now

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is a key policy focus area of the Berkeley Challenge Grant Team. Berkeley community partner East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) has partnered with the Mayor’s Office to introduce the policy in Berkeley. When an owner of a rental property decides to sell, TOPA enables the tenants that call this building home to receive the first opportunity to buy the property. The TOPA working group, a coalition of nonprofits, community land trusts, and local grassroots groups, has been busy building momentum for the policy’s adoption. The op-ed they authored below describes the promise of TOPA in Berkeley, in the words of community members. TOPA will be heard tomorrow Thursday, March 18 at 10:30am at the Berkeley Land Use, Housing & Economic Development Committee.  — Anna Cash, Berkeley Challenge Grant Fellow

Opinion: Turning crisis into opportunity: Why Berkeley needs TOPA now

Allowing tenants to buy their apartments when they come up for sale will help keep the diversity Berkeley prides itself on.

By Fernando Echeverria and Sarah Scruggs

There’s an end in sight to this pandemic, but vaccinations and falling case rates won’t magically fix the exacerbated housing crisis that COVID-19 leaves in its wake – a crisis that was already displacing thousands in BIPOC communities from their East Bay homes. Bold action is overdue to ensure that marginalized renters across Berkeley have a more thriving future. With a new policy called the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act” (TOPA), we have an opportunity to go beyond pandemic relief and take concrete steps to preserve homes in our community.

With 75% of Berkeley’s low-income census tracts at risk of or undergoing displacement, a crisis that has disproportionately impacted the Black community, Berkeley desperately needs an innovative policy mechanism to stop the bleeding. In Berkeley, 72% of households of color are renters, whereas less than half of white households are renters. As a realtor and former long-time Berkeley resident Lela Logene Butler shared, being able to own in Berkeley “would take me back to my roots. My church is in Berkeley, I shop in Berkeley, my office is in Berkeley, yet I can’t afford to live in Berkeley.” We cannot afford to return to “normal” when normal means preserving the inequities that have left low-income communities of color vulnerable to this crisis. We know that where a person lives is critical in determining their health outcomes and nearly everything about their life. And we have a chance to ensure that Berkeley becomes a place where people from different backgrounds can pursue their dreams and make plans for the future.

No policy is better made for this moment than TOPA, a policy that will level the playing field by providing tenants, who already call Berkeley home, the first chance to acquire the rental property they live in when it comes up for sale. TOPA requires owners seeking to sell a rental property to give current tenants notice of intent to sell before marketing the property to other purchasers. Tenants are given a right of first offer and right of first refusal to purchase the property. In order to make acquisitions possible for tenants, TOPA includes community workshopped timelines which are critical to ensure tenants have time to organize and secure financing. Tenants can also assign rights to an affordable housing developer, or if tenants decline to act, these affordable housing developers will have a chance to purchase and preserve the existing tenancies and the property as affordable. All in all, TOPA guarantees that owners will still receive fair market value for their property while affording tenants a chance to stay in the place they call home.

By investing in this policy, and others geared towards preservation, we can increase the overall affordability of the community, helping stabilize neighborhoods and keep them from becoming more exclusionary as they gentrify. Parties active in Washington, DC’s real estate industry, where TOPA has been in existence since 1980, agree that TOPA is an important tool to prevent displacement and create affordable homes.

As the market has continued to heat up in Berkeley, tenants are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to having a shot at homeownership. Properties are sold quickly, often with all-cash offers; tenants often don’t know about these sales until it’s too late to make an offer themselves. As Butler put it, in her capacity as a realtor, “I have people reaching out to me and they say ‘I wish I could own some property or something but I don’t think I can afford it and I’ll always be a renter.’ TOPA would be an option I could have shared with them. TOPA would mean more homeownership among Black and brown people, and more homeownership options for everyone.”

TOPA is a policy intervention that Mia Villanueva, a longtime Berkeley Unified School District employee and Berkeley tenant, characterizes as a tool to provide security and stability because “tenants are an essential part of [Berkeley] neighborhoods [and] sometimes people forget that.” We have to act now to make sure that we can keep Berkeley Berkeley, the diverse community that we love, and to build the kind of community stability that benefits us all through a meaningful and community-supported TOPA.

TOPA is scheduled to be reviewed by the Berkeley Land Use, Housing & Economic Development Committee this Thursday, March 18 at 10:30 a.m. Whether you are a tenant or a homeowner in Berkeley, we urge you to come out in support of a policy that will benefit our entire community.


Fernando Echeverria and Sarah Scruggs are part of the Berkeley TOPA working group composed of local grassroots tenant organizations, community land trusts, and the East Bay Community Law Center. Scruggs has almost 10 years of experience in affordable housing development and policy and currently works at the Northern California Land Trust. Echeverria is the community economic justice project manager for the East Bay Community Law Center.

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