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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