Berkeley rent board sees 5 candidates for open seats

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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Unlike the city’s school board and City Council elections this year, all candidates who are running for Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board are guaranteed a position.

Since its inception in the 1980s, the rent board has enacted housing regulations and provided mediation between landlords and tenants. Five of the board’s nine seats are up for election this year, and with only five candidates, the outcome has been resolved before Tuesday’s election.

Selected members of the Affordable Housing slate include incumbents Jesse Townley and Katherine Harr, recent UC Berkeley alumnus James Chang, youth program instructor John Selawsky and video producer Paola Laverde-Levine.

The progressive pro-rent control slate aims to offer affordable rent options for tenants and preserve rent-controlled units. Candidates were selected from a seven-person applicant pool during July’s Berkeley Tenant Convention.

Disappearance of TUFF

In the last election, however, candidates hailed from the Affordable Housing slate as well as the landlord-backed Tenants United for Fairness slate. TUFF was formed in part to address allegations of pro-tenant bias by the rent board released in a 2012 Alameda County Superior Court grand jury report.

Last year, the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission levied a fine on TUFF after the slate failed to create a campaign committee to file campaign contribution statements.

Additionally, TUFF allegedly received contributions from prohibited business sources, including Premium Properties, and did not submit finance statements to the city. The donations provided funding for slate mailers that promoted four TUFF candidates. As defined by the Berkeley Election Reform Act, slate mailers are mass mailings that support or oppose four or more candidates or ballot measures.

Under the election reform act, monetary contributions must be specified with a clear allocation, such as the funding of slate mailers. But because the contributions were given to the slate as a whole, they violated the act.

Those who organized the mailers then became legally recognized as a campaign committee that was required to file campaign contribution reports, which it did not.

An agreement was reached between the Fair Campaign Practices Committee and TUFF in which the slate agreed to pay a $4,000 fine to the city.

“I don’t think the fine was reflective of the crime committed,” said Sid Lakireddy, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, who did fundraising for TUFF. “It was reflective of the general sentiment against how much money was donated.”

Ultimately, Judy Hunt was the only TUFF candidate who won a spot on the board in 2012.

“She’s not the puppet they hoped for,” Harr said. “She’s very concerned with landlords, but, like me, she administers the law fairly. Landlords are unhappy with that.”

Lakireddy said the board is “not in the consciousness of a lot of Berkeley residents.” TUFF-backed individuals had considered running, Lakireddy said, but were persuaded by past candidates from doing so.

“There’s a general sentiment that (running for rent board) is a lot of work and a lot of hassle without a lot of rewards,” Lakireddy said.

United in view

Because all five candidates represent a collective slate, they share similar perspectives on city housing issues.

One goal of the board is to push for more thorough and timely inspections of multi-unit buildings, according to Selawsky. He pointed to the 2011 Haste Street fire, which was caused by a mechanical malfunction or improper installation of elevator equipment, as a reason for stricter building inspections.

Additionally, the board aims to preserve and expand rent-controlled units by preventing developers from demolishing buildings that contain such units.

The 1995 Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a statewide mandate that prohibited placing new buildings under rent control, has been a barrier for the rent board, according to Harr. Incoming board members hope to change city demolition laws by reviving a proposed demolition ordinance that would replace demolished rent-controlled units with permanent affordable housing.

With housing costs rising, Selawsky said the middle class is “being squeezed out of Berkeley.” Harr, who is a landlord herself, said the board must work to ameliorate tensions between tenants and landlords by holding workshops for both parties to attend.

“I’m not anti-landlord,” Laverde-Levine said. “Both sides, tenants and landlords, have all the things they need to make proper decisions.”

The rent board does not meet with City Council members on a regular basis. According to Chang, the incoming rent board members would like to be “respected more as an entity” of the city government to push more legislation.

“The board needs to be one for the 21st century,” Chang said. “It takes fresh perspective.”

Contact Adrienne Shih at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @adrienneshih.