The long-fueled tension between Berkeley tenants and property owners has taken on greater significance for the Rent Stabilization Board candidates in this November’s electoral race.
The eight candidates running for the city’s four rent board commissioner positions have formed two slates — the Progressive Affordable Housing slate and the Berkeley Tenants United for Fairness slate — with the latter aiming to address alleged pro-tenant bias on the commission following the release of a report from the Alameda County Superior Court grand jury in June.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of pro-tenant and anti-tenant as much as it is professionalism and directed oversight,” said Jay James, UC Berkeley postdoctoral student and board candidate with the Tenants United slate.
In addition to the initial response filed in June, the rent board released another response just two weeks ago to the grand jury report stating that while the report contained many factual inaccuracies, the board has voted 8-1 to implement certain changes, such as conducting annual reviews of staff salary and possibly bringing in a third-party expert to peer review the board.
In the June report, the grand jury criticized the board’s hiring procedures, fee levels and its alleged bias in favor of tenants.
“It is important to point out that despite a nine-month investigation, the Civil Grand Jury found nothing illegal or unethical, nor did it find that any of the Board’s activities were outside the scope of the Ordinance,” the response reads.
But Sid Lakireddy, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said the rent board has not done enough to address the issues pointed out by the grand jury, especially regarding its alleged pro-tenant bias.
“I think it’s severely slanted toward the tenantry,” Lakireddy said. “I don’t think (the board has) taken (the report) seriously. The grand jury echos a lot of what property owners have been saying … a lot of abuse and enforcement has been really uneven.”
Lakireddy said landlord registration fees increased from $12 per unit in 1980 to $194 per unit today and that this current rate is “out of line.” Because the board often overextends its involvement with unrelated programs, he said, the costs for property owners are too high to pay for the programs that are sponsored.
The Progressive Affordable Housing slate was formed during the Berkeley Tenant Convention in July, with the Tenants United slate forming soon after. The election ballot will not distinguish between the two slates, allowing voters to select candidates individually.
Incumbents Asa Dodsworth, Igor Tregub and Judy Shelton — along with UC Berkeley alumnus Alejandro Soto-Vigil — are running as a progressive pro-tenant rent board slate to improve effectiveness and continue ensuring affordable housing in Berkeley.
“We have been working tirelessly to raise funds, trying to let our supporters know that we are trying to protect rent control and allow that diversity in Berkeley by keeping the rent board solvent and strong,” Soto-Vigil said.
For the Berkeley Tenants United for Fairness slate — composed of candidates Judy Hunt, Kiran Shenoy, UC Berkeley postdoctoral student Jay James and incumbent Nicole Drake — many candidates were driven to reform how the rent board operates based on the report.
“I think (the two slates) all share the exact same principles with strong rent protection, (but) I want to restore balance in the rent board,” Drake said. “I want to see a fair vetting process. I want outreach not just for tenants but also for property owners and landlords.”
Tregub — who has been on the board since 2008 — said it has already supported a number of state legislations that benefit the landlord community and, locally, has provided numerous workshops to advise both property owners and tenants.
“If anything, I would characterize the rent board as pro-ordinance,” Tregub said. “Even if we could understand the plight of the tenants and sympathize with them, we have to comply with the ordinance … when we go through public policy analysis, we look at how to benefit both.”
The board is waiting for the grand jury to either report back or suggest further steps, he said.
Daphne Chen covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]