City Council postpones action on ordinance to increase financial support for displaced tenants

The Berkeley City Council decided to postpone action on an ordinance Tuesday night that would have updated the city’s relocation program and increased financial assistance for Berkeley tenants displaced by housing damages.

Though several city and housing staff members expected the ordinance to pass unanimously at the meeting, council members raised concerns over the costs of voluntary seismic retrofitting, displaced pets and differential rent payments, which were not clearly stated in the ordinance revised by the city’s Housing and Community Services department and Rent Stabilization Board.

“I am not going to support something that doesn’t support the safety of tenants properly,” said Councilmember Linda Maio at the meeting. “I want us to work something in there to help a person move into a safer, habitable unit.”

The revised ordinance would require property owners of housing units to fund the relocation expenses in the case of inadvertent unit repairs. If the landlord chooses not to pay for relocation, the city would have the choice to fund the payments and may decide to reclaim the payment from the owner.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who encountered relocation issues while he served on the city’s Housing Advisory Commission from 2004 to 2008, said the ordinance had been amended from its 1986 version to reflect the increase in the costs of living for Berkeley residents.

“When I was on the Housing Advisory Commission in 2007, we had an appeal of a decision by city building officials that tenants did not have (to relocate),” Arreguin said. “It was pretty clear to all commissioners that this particular property owner was trying to use the relocation process to force out his … long-term rent controlled tenants.”

City staff and council members also discussed rental agreements and whether there would be an increased liability to the property owner depending on the amount of people living in the unit without being named on the lease.

A related discussion then began over differential rent payments regarding new and old units and if tenants would be liable for payments if they chose to move in to the temporary unit permanently.

“You are subsidized during the period of repairs … then the (tenant) is offered the opportunity to buy back,” Maio said at the meeting. “But then they decide to stay in the unit with the balcony, that’s $200 more —  who pays that?”

Additional council concern was raised over displacement of pets, which the city’s Berkeley Property Owners Association pointed out would only be covered in the case of an unplanned event, according to Jane Micallef, director of housing and community services.

“Paying $50 a day for a dog … is a lot of money and I’m a dog owner,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf at the meeting. “I’ve got two dogs and I wouldn’t want to be separated from them. You could have a household with many pets, and you could end up paying $15,000 to $20,000 to relocate pets.”

Voluntary seismic retrofitting and the relationship between the city’s Soft Story Ordinance —  which requires owners of earthquake-vulnerable buildings to inform tenants of building weaknesses —  and relocation was also raised as an issue that needs to be more clearly addressed in the revised ordinance.

“We have a soft story ordinance that we are very anxious to see move forward,” Wengraf said.  “If these fees are perceived as punitive, people will resist doing that because in many cases tenants have to be relocated. We need to strike a balance between clarifying ordinances.”

The council will revisit the ordinance at its Oct. 11 meeting after city staff have revised it further to take into account these concerns brought up Tuesday night.

Anjuli Sastry covers housing.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the council had unanimously passed the ordinance. In fact, the council decided to hold the item over to its next meeting on Oct. 11.