Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board operations criticized in grand jury report

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An Alameda County Superior Court grand jury report was released Monday criticizing the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board’s hiring procedures, fee levels and its alleged bias in favor of tenants.

The report recommends solutions for the rent board to change the way it functions. In response, the rent board refuses to comply with the recommendations, claiming that the facts made by the report are factually wrong and did not represent the whole picture of how the board works.

The grand jury did not disclose information regarding the nature of their investigation or how it was conducted.

The report states the rent board charges landlords registration fees of $194 per unit with penalties for nonpayment. According to the grand jury, this is an “extraordinary increase” compared to the $12 per unit city fee in 1980.

According to the report, the rent board is “biased in favor of tenants, charges excessive registration fees to landlords, uses improper hiring procedures, and discourages open expression of concerns.”

In response to the report’s claim, Rent Board chair Lisa Stephens said the registration fees to landlords should be included in the price landlords set for tenants to pay to them. The increase in rent a landlord is allowed to make each year accounts for the registration fee.

Rent Board Executive Director Jay Kelekian also said the increase in landlord fees from $12 to $194 per unit is due to underestimated costs of the rent control system when the system was initially implemented.

As for comparing Berkeley and other cities in the grand jury report, board Commissioner Igor Tregub says that the cities are fundamentally different than Berkeley in their policies and operations.

“These funds are necessary for administering ordinances,” Tregub said.

Berkeley landlord Ali Eslami said the cost just feels like a fee to do business in the city.

“Nobody wants to pay a fee, but agencies need money to function,” Eslami said. “The agency has been very helpful in mediating conflicts between tenants and landlords and explaining renting policies.”

Other issues the report states are the rent board’s “improper personnel procedures” of hiring possibly unqualified employees, creating new, unnecessary positions and having a high yearly salary for the executive director compared to the city’s public works director, who manages a larger workforce and budget.

Stephens said the comparison between the two positions is flawed because the executive director’s salary was set in 2008 and determined by comparing the salaries of other public positions similar to the executive, such as the city clerk.

In regards to the board’s hiring process, both Stephens and Kelekian said the board follows standard city procedures by discussing with the human resources department which positions are necessary and who to hire.

The report also questions the pro-tenant slate of the board — which has included both landlords and homeowners in the past — to which Eslami said the board is supposed to be biased because its function is to protect tenant rights.

“The answer to whether they’re fair in their policies or not would take a long conversation,” Eslami said. “Otherwise, they do what they’re supposed to do.”

The Berkeley Property Owners Association could not be reached for comment when contacted.

Though the board does not have to follow the recommendations made in the report by the grand jury, the Berkeley City Council could place a measure on the November ballot so that city residents can vote on the way the rent board operates.

View the grand jury report and the rent board’s response to the report here:

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<br /> <a href=”http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/380921/grand-jury-report.pdf”>Grand Jury Report (PDF)</a><br /> <br /> <a href=”http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/380921/grand-jury-report.txt”>Grand Jury Report (Text)</a><br />

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that the Alameda County Superior Court grand jury report released Monday criticized the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board for “misconduct” regarding board procedures. In fact, the report makes no mention of “misconduct,” which carries specific legal connotations.