Berkeley basics: Q and A with Jay Kelekian of the Rent Stabilization Board

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

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With experiences ranging from counseling renters on how to navigate the rental market to helping oversee mediations between tenants and landlords, Jay Kelekian, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Board, has seen just about everything in Berkeley’s housing world. The campus alumnus and Berkeley housing expert sat down with The Daily Californian to talk about what student-renters should know about the Rent Stabilization Board, tenant rights and the Bay Area housing crisis.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

The Daily Californian: First off, what does the Rent Stabilization Board do exactly?

Jay Kelekian: We regulate rents for about 20,000 units in Berkeley (and) we also regulate evictions. …By regulating, what we do is we guarantee the laws in effect so that there aren’t unnecessary or arbitrary evictions and so that owners make a reasonable return on their investment.

It’s really designed in many ways while giving a fair return to owners. It’s (also) designed to provide tenants some of the stability that a homeowner would have. … Once you’ve decided the place you want to move into and you’re willing to pay that rent, you should be able to stay in your home so long as you’re paying your rent and remain a tenant of good standing.

DC: What can tenants, and student-renters specifically, ask the Rent Stabilization Board in terms of help and services?

JK: We’re always here for advice to let you know what the laws (are) and what your rights are under the law. If there is a violation of the law, at most what we can do is hold a hearing and if there have been overcharges or some illegal activity, at the end of a hearing, you’d be entitled to a refund of any overcharges.

The single most important thing that I’d say to student-tenants is that, more than any other group, they are taken advantage of … oftentimes paying higher rents, living in worse conditions. …We want to let them know we exist, let them know they have rights and try to make it as easy as possible so that they can effectuate those rights. Sometimes that’s going to a hearing but more often than not, it’s how to approach your landlord, how to resolve something.

This is the first time (many students are) in this situation. It’s important to know that you do have rights and how to negotiate those rights.

DC: You’re touching on the fact that tenants have certain rights — could you simply outline some of those rights student-tenants should know about?

JK: They have a right to a controlled rent — a certainty in what the rent is — a right to a habitable unit. …They have a right to be secure in their unit (and) the right to make certain life choices about who’s there and who’s not there … and of course, good cause for eviction.

DC: For a lot of student-tenants, this is the first time they’re renting, but they’re also in a new city and some students don’t know the current housing crisis that we’re in. Can you talk about what students should know about the Bay Area housing crisis.

JK: Bay Area-wide, there’s way more demand than there is supply and that’s really why we have rent stabilization. …If there’s no additional value added to a unit and an owner is making a fair rate of return, the stability of the entire community is put at risk when housing prices go (up dramatically).

Most of that increased demand is because the Bay Area is such a desirable place, in part because of the public institutions and publicly-funded infrastructure: our wonderful university with 30,000 people, Tilden Park, municipal marina, the list goes on.

DC: So what are some ways that students can address this issue?

JK: One is holding the university accountable for providing some of the housing. We know the university is increasing the number of acceptances … and there’s nothing that I’m aware of that’s slated for additional housing. Next year is the first year on-campus housing isn’t guaranteed for anyone. …The university has to take a greater role in that.

Be aware of the issues, be aware of why they’re there, what’s causing them and don’t accept simplistic answers to why they’re there, (because it) allows you to be a participant when the City Council or state Legislature is deciding what’s an appropriate response. Being open-minded and truly informed is also important.

DC: Is there anything else that tenants and students looking for houses should know?

JK: Do your homework before you go looking — the rent board is a resource for that. You can find out what the current rent is, whether there’s been a history of problems with a particular owner, you can find out what’s legal and not legal in your lease and if you’re presented with illegal terms how to handle that situation. …The information is here.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.