Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board outlines rights and rent rules

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Sharon Liu/Senior Staff

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Since 1982, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board has existed to regulate increases in rent, mediate conflicts between landlords and tenants and develop housing legislation.

The board is one of just a handful in the state and consists of nine commissioners — five of whom are up for re-election this year.

“We’re always working on keeping the population aware that we have rights,” said Rent Board Commissioner Pam Webster.

What follows is what several commissioners think student residents ought to know about their rent, rights and representation.

Present projects

Rent Board Commissioner Jesse Townley and Vice Chair Katherine Harr both put ensuring habitability — like heat in housing units and leak-proof roofs — high on their list of priorities. The board is working with Berkeley City Council to allow tenants to make anonymous complaints to their landlords, Harr said.

Townley, who is up for re-election this fall, noted that if tenants suspect problems, they can get a free inspection of their living space.

“We need to really up our game in terms of habitability,” Townley said. “What we would love to see is every single unit in the city physically inspected.”

Earthquakes are also on the forefront of the board’s recent agenda. Commissioners worked with the City Council on an ordinance passed in December that required owners of seismically unsafe buildings with at least five units to retrofit them within the next five years.

Now, according to Townley, a committee of rent board commissioners wants to push more people to use the city’s emergency cache program, through which apartment residents can apply for free earthquake supplies. They are also looking to expand the program with a disaster-preparedness training course for apartment residents.

Rights and resources

Harr, also up for re-election, said she hopes renters realize that Berkeley has a tighter law than the rest of the state regarding fees charged to tenants to process their applications and consumer credit reports. Landlords must tell tenants the maximum charge allowed by state law — $44.51 — and give back a copy of the credit report, receipt and any unused portion of the fee.

Relief from housing troubles can also be found by calling the rent board, which provides free counseling. According to Webster, the rent board also tables at public events and holds various workshops.

“I think that the most important thing for students to realize is that they have rights, they’re pretty extensive, and any information about that is just a phone call away,” Harr said.

Students on board

No student has been elected to the rent board since 2004, when two UC Berkeley students, Jason Overman and current Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, were elected.

Candidates who are selected for a slate at the upcoming 2014 Berkeley Tenant Convention have the best chance of being elected.

“It would be amazing if we could get a student or a recent student on the rent board,” said James Chang, external affairs vice president at the Berkeley Student Cooperative. “That would take a lot of student engagement.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected]