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.