6 candidates compete for Berkeley’s dominant rent board slate

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On Sunday, voters at the Berkeley Tenant Convention will select five candidates from a six-candidate applicant pool to a pro-tenant slate that has dominated the Rent Stabilization Board elections since the late 1990s.

The Rent Stabilization Board is a city commission formed in the early 1980s that regulates increases in rent and sometimes mediates conflicts between landlords and tenants. Five of nine commissioner seats are open on the board this election season.

The convention dates back to at least 1996, according to rent board chair Lisa Stephens. At the convention, Berkeley residents hear the candidates for the Affordable Housing slate speak and then vote. Those vying for a spot agree that if not chosen for the slate, they will not run for the rent board, although not all have adhered to the promise in the past. Those chosen for the slate work together during the election process.

A steering committee runs the convention and has included members of the Berkeley Tenant Union, school board and the progressive group Berkeley Citizens Action, according to Fred Dodsworth, a member of the committee.

Candidates at the convention include incumbents Jesse Townley and Katherine Harr, recent UC Berkeley alumnus James Chang, tenants’ rights attorney Lisa Giampaoli, Berkeley Tenants Union co-founder John Selawsky and Berkeley tenant Rebecca Renfro.

Stephens said before the convention was founded, there were many more qualified applicants in support of rent control running for office than there were seats, ultimately diluting the votes received for such candidates across the board.

Townley recounted a period in the mid-1990s when an opposing slate made up of property owners held a majority on the board, and he said rent skyrocketed.

“They basically did everything they could to raise rent as much as they could while staying within the letter of the law,” he said.

Townley said the convention helped create a sense of unity among those in favor of rent control and provided a unified set of candidates. He credits community discontent with the board during the mid-1990s as a factor that led to a board dominated by pro-tenant commissioners.

Another cause of the board’s current makeup, he said, was the passage of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act in 1995, which established a system of “vacancy decontrol,” allowing property owners to align rates with the market value at the time of vacancy by a tenant.

Since the passage of the act, opposition from a slate like the one that held a majority in the mid-1990s has largely disappeared.

But last election season, a new slate known as the Tenants United for Fairness entered the race against the Affordable Housing slate. The slate included Nicole Drake, an incumbent who switched to TUFF after running on the Berkeley Tenant Convention slate when first elected. Although later fined by the Berkeley Fair Campaign Practices Commission, TUFF ultimately elected Judy Hunt to the board. So far, no new TUFF candidates have been announced for the current race.

Sid Lakireddy, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, was a supporter of TUFF. He said the Berkeley Tenant Convention has only worked in the interest of a small ingroup. He said that the elections favored established and connected individuals in local city politics and that any other voice did not have the support of the convention.

Lakireddy said he wishes for more diversity in the applicant pool in future years. He also hopes for more advocacy by the Rent Stabilization Board for property owners.

“There is a sentiment amongst board members that all property owners and landowners should not be in business and property should be free,” he said.

Amid its last election year, the Alameda County Superior Court released a report criticizing the Berkeley rent board for charging excessive registration fees to landlords and for being biased towards tenants.

Harr described herself not as pro-tenant but rather pro-ordinance, referring to the rent stabilization ordinance that was passed in 1980 to regulate residential rents and protect tenants. She said the board simply follows the laws and does not take personal prejudice into opinion.

“There is a perception that commissioners would be so pro-tenant that they would disregard the law, but that is not the case. We take our jobs very seriously,” Harr said.

She also characterized the board as one that has a history of electing students to its ranks. In 2004, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and Jason Overman, then UC Berkeley students, were elected.

Chang, who graduated from UC Berkeley this year, said he felt that there is need for the voice of a student advocate on the board, as he feels that student housing needs are different than the needs of traditional Berkeley residents.

The 2014 Berkeley Tenant Convention will take place at the South Berkeley Senior Center. A $10 donation is requested to pay for convention costs.

Nico Correia is the lead city reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nicolocorreia.

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  • paxman

    The candidates endorsed by the 2014 BCA-BTU Rent Board Convention are James Chang (student), Kathy Harr (incumbent), Paola Laverde (community organizer and Childcare Law Center board member), Jesse Townley (incumbent), and John Selawsky (former Berkeley School Board member)… vote for them all in November.

  • paxman

    Paola Laverde is still in the race and would make an excellent rent board commissioner.

  • paxman

    For more on Sid Lakireddy’s multimillionaire uncle Lakireddy Reddy read the Daily Cal…http://www.dailycal.org/2013/10/30/fire-damaged-building-retain-rent-controlled-status/

    You’ll recall that Lakireddy Bali Reddy was Berkeley’s infamous child slaver… he purchased young women from India and had them brought to America where he and several members of his immediate family used them as slaves, sexual and otherwise, and that the failure of the heating system in one of his property caused the death of one of these young women. He spent several years in prison for that and now must register as a sexual predator. For more on that case and how it is hurting his victims even to this day, read the SF Public Press. http://sfpublicpress.org/news/2012-02/how-an-infamous-berkeley-human-trafficking-case-fueled-reform

  • bob

    From Berkeleyside:
    “A highly critical report by the Alameda County Grand Jury has found that the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is a “self-sustaining bureaucracy that operates without effective oversight and accountability.”
    This rent board pays Jay Kelekian, its director, $183,000 a year to oversee a $4 million budget and manage just 21 employees – which is more than the city Berkeley pays its director of public works, who oversees 326 employees and has a $90 million annual budget, according to the report.”

    Eliminate the rent board!

    • paxman

      Yes. Eliminate the Rent Board. Evict the poor. Send the poor to poorhouses. Euthanize the elderly and put the children to work! Berkeley should only be for the rich. That’s what too many landlords and developers would prefer. Just remember that some of those poor, young, and old are your friends and family… they’re the folks who make your food and clean your clothes and, too often, teach your children… but who cares about them… certainly Bob doesn’t. If you do care, come help us select the next affordable housing rent board slate this Sunday…be sure to be at the South Berkeley Senior Center by 2 pm.

      • bob

        If there was a vote to ship the elderly to Fresno, I would wholly support it! Housing may be a right but the location where you live is not.

        • paxman

          Why stop at Fresno… why not just euthanize the elderly? There is plenty of room in heaven and there will still be room in hell for you, Bub…

          • bob

            Good thing I’m an atheist, you unwanted NIMBY.

          • paxman

            Irony is wasted on you Boob.

    • paxman

      For a point by point refutation of the report mentioned above, including the accurate monetary figures, read the documents provided by Alameda County… http://www.acgov.org/grandjury/documents/2011-12BerkeleyRentStabilizationBoard.pdf

  • notnot2

    The rent board should be eliminated. The head of it has a salary of over $1.5 million per year and the rest are handsomely paid as well for doing more or less nothing at all other than waxing poetic about history and putting out an occasional newsletter.

    • AnthonySanchez

      $1.5 million per year? Or are you referring to a multi-year contract?

      • Whoa Mule

        Anthony, As you most likely know, the current 5 year contract for the executive director calls for a total compensation of $300K per year (plus increases) and he earned over $2MM during his first 10 years with the board.

        Jesse would do well to speak out against the culture of compensation at the RCB. There is no excuse for running the board like a capitalist corporation wherein the board members are also excessively compensated and therefore make no effort to oversee an efficient operation.

        • paxman

          By the way, the rent board is a part of the Berkeley city government and unlike the elected rent board members — each of which whose annual salary is approximately six thousand dollars a year — the rent board’s staff salaries are determined by the long term contracts the city negotiated with all of its staff… the salary of the rent board’s executive director is NOT set by the rent board, but by actions of the city manager working with the city attorney and the city council… if you want to whine about the rent board salaries, you’ll need to do so to the appropriate parties, and while I too think the RB Ex Dir’s salary is too high at $165,000 a year (see the Alameda county report attached previously), the only way it will get changed is if all city staff salaries are renegotiated… good luck with that.

    • paxman

      NodNod2… adjust your meds… the Executive Director of the Rent Board earns $165,000 a year, approximately $60,000 a year less than the City Manager makes or the City Attorney makes… frankly less than most of the Berkeley Police Department officers make. It’s a real shame that the rent board’s enemies must lie so desperately about facts that are readily available. For more facts and less fiction, read the actual documents: http://www.dailycal.org/2014/03/14/rent-board/