Landlord coalition may threaten tenant rights

CITY AFFAIRS: A recently formed Berkeley group to advocate the rights of property owners is troubling in its stark opposition to the rent board’s pro-tenant policies.

The nascent formation of a coalition to lobby for landlord rights, complete with its own political action committee, is concerning. We are troubled by the idea of powerful people pooling their resources and wealth for causes that may further cripple affordable housing and regulations meant to protect tenants.

The coalition aims to levy political influence through a PAC and a legal defense fund, both funded by the minimum of $500,000 the coalition plans to raise every year. Its members’ goals include lowering the city’s annual registration fee for landlords — recently raised to $213 per residential unit — and lobbying against the city’s Rent Stabilization Board.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that California laws already favor landlords. Thanks to the deeply misguided 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, rent ceilings can disappear as soon as a new tenant signs a lease. Affordable housing has been on the sharp decline ever since, threatening our city’s diversity and sabotaging the equal opportunities it is meant to provide.

The core group of landlords developing the coalition has beef with Berkeley’s rent board and its supposedly pro-tenant policies. In an announcement in the Berkeley Property Owners Association’s newsletter, the coalition stated it is collecting money “to fight for our rights, bringing balance to matters that have been far out of balance for far too long.”

First of all, we see nothing wrong with city rent boards being pro-tenant. Secondly, regardless of the rent board’s impartiality, landlords should work alongside rent board commissioners and organize within already-established political processes rather than seek to undermine them by channeling more money into politics.

Furthermore, as we and other students can attest to, landlords face little accountability and supervision. We have seen firsthand that basic upkeep, repairs and habitability conditions are not urgent priorities for certain landlords. Students and community members who cannot afford exorbitant rents are stuck with subpar living conditions.

In theory, we sympathize with the plight of less well-off landlords who perhaps genuinely need protections from the city. But the landlords behind this new coalition do not appear to belong to the subset of more vulnerable property owners. For instance, the 11 members of its organizing committee include the former president of Everest Properties, which manages numerous properties throughout the city, and others associated with prominent property management companies.

As we saw with the “soda tax” in last year’s midterm elections, even pouring an extravagant amount of money into politics does not necessarily lead to success. Nonetheless, we hope that residents and students will be watchful of the landlord coalition. We, too, want city regulations that treat property owners fairly, but the goals of this coalition make us worry about the future of affordable housing.

Ultimately, city officials should prioritize Berkeley’s most vulnerable — not landlords, but the struggling tenants being gradually priced out of this city.

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  • Seth Franklin

    I am a small property manager (about 9 units) and I regularly participate with both the rent board and the landlord groups in Berkeley. Unlike the other commentators I am pretty liberal. I can see that rent control and the rent control board are an important component in maintaining affordable housing. Housing costs have become a disproportionate part of moderate and low income people’s life expenses. We need the check of an organization protecting tenants from predatory evictions. However, your article is entirely polemical and one sided. We also need checks/balances on the unregulated use of power of that organization. A few things to keep in mind: Rent control discourages adequate maintenance of rent controlled buildings. The rent board, in theory should be concerned with making sure that there are incentives to enable and encourage owners to take pro-active steps to ensure the safety and long term quality of the housing they provide. However, because pro-tenant has come to mean anti-owner their policies have focused almost entirely on keeping people in housing. They can’t find a way to promote improved safety without giving financial consideration to owners, and they can’t do that because of the us against them climate that articles like this promulgates. They are left only with the ability to increase punishments, which is why the landlord organizations exist. The rent board has almost no oversight. Their budget and regulations are independent of the city. Because of their own baroque policies and the legal backlog they have become a defacto court system with precedents and policies often having the force of law. I have found myself several times in situations wherein i am trying to protect some residents from others, but am entirely prevented because of the current policies of the rent board. A sizable proportion of their budget goes to paying third party law firms who defend tenants in court. These law firms profit off of extending legal proceedings and forcing protracted legal battles regardless of whether those actually benefit the residents. Also please consider that the underlying cause of increased rents is the lack of housing growth coupled with increased demand. Building in Berkeley is notoriously risky and complicated because of the anti-owner political views of many locals. Often the most vocal espousers of these views are just NIMBYs who fear that increased housing density will interfere with their lives. Since increased housing density (particularly around public transport) is the only way to mitigate the traffic and environmental impacts of growth in the overall bay area, these folks end up with purely emotional rather than rational approaches to resolving the need for increased housing. So, if you want to combine decrying the opposition to regulatory agencies with acknowledging the need for accepting increased high density housing growth, then you have a balanced view. But that is not what you have written. You are wrong to say that the rent board should be pro-tenant. That would literally countermand their charter. Their charter is to maintain and improve the low cost housing stock. That means that they can and should work to protect tenant’s rights, but that they should also be working just as hard to EXPAND housing. They should be showing up at planning comission meetings and advocating for the creation of new housing with voluntary low income housing increases. But they are silent on those issues. They are pursuing their charter selectively. You are advocating that this is good and should be unopposed. I do not believe that any government bureaucracy should operate unopposed. Of course the landlord’s pooling resources should be checked. They should be checked in the same way that the rent board should be checked. this is literally what checks and balances as a system of governance is based on. As Benjamin Franklin (no relation) said “there is no greater threat to liberty than an efficient and well run bureaucracy.”

  • “Landlord coalition may threaten tenant rights” What a fear mongering title

    If the city wants affordable housing, let them build projects and see what that leads to. oh wait public housing projects are often crime ridden and public blights? I couldnt have guessed

  • Matthew Barnes

    Pretty pathetic attempt, Skippies.
    Ever hear of the free market?
    Ever think that housing subsidies should be the responsibility of society as a whole, not a small percentage (i.e. landlords)?

    “We, too, want city regulations that treat property owners fairly”

    What a load of horses*it.

    Ever wonder why 46 states have no rent control, and 35 outright prohibit it?

    We’re not in the USSR, comrades.

    • Nunya Beeswax

      “Free market” is, in this case, a euphemism for “devil take the hindmost.”

      The reality is that the tech boom has created a class of people with plenty of money to spend who want to live in the Bay Area. Factor in also that most Bay Area cities resist increased density (they all think they’re still small towns) and that the needs of the University for housing are increasing, and you have a situation where housing is at a premium.

      Landlords are free to charge whatever the market will bear for new tenants. There is no lack of them in a highly transient university town. The real issue here is greed. A 15-year tenant in a rent-controlled 1-bedroom is probably paying around $1000, and the landlord’s frustrated because a new tenancy in that building could pull in twice that. So clearly the game is to work to repeal rent control, because then a studio in West Berkeley can rent for $1500.

      We’re already to the point that service workers in this city can’t afford to live here. They drive or bus in from Vallejo or Richmond to work at McDonald’s. The last time I went to get blood drawn at the lab, the phlebotomist told me she drives to work every day from Modesto. If you don’t see anything wrong with this picture, you’re part of the problem.

      • Matthew Barnes

        Gee, “Nunya”. Maybe you should look into just WHY “most Bay Area cities resist increased density.”

        Do ya think that maybe, just maybe, that’s a big part of the problem?

        • Nunya Beeswax

          Certainly protecting that small-town feel is their right (though personally I think it’s doomed to fail), but it’s not really possible to have all that fat tech money without increasing population density. Unless you think it’s fine that people have to drive 50+ miles from poorer communities to make your lattes.

          • Matthew Barnes

            And your point is!?!
            Reality sucks, don’t it, Mr. Anonymous?

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