Property owners should be involved in shaping Berkeley housing policy

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JULY 06, 2015

Regarding your June 29 editorial titled “Landlord coalition may threaten tenant rights,” the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, or BRHC, was formed to make sure that property owners have a means of engaging thoughtfully and constructively in the development of policies that affect the city’s rental housing stock.

Up to the present time, property owners have not been as involved in shaping housing policy in Berkeley as we believe we should be. Issues such as the mini-dorm ordinance, seismic retrofit ordinance and condominium conversion, among others, have been decided without meaningful input from those who own and operate the city’s rental housing. Good faith attempts to reach out to the staff and board members of current and past Rent Stabilization Boards have been ignored or rebuffed. The lack of response to our outreach speaks to the need for this new coalition.

The rent board is supposed to enforce the city’s Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance in a fair and even-handed way. This is not the same thing as being “pro-tenant.” Certainly, the board should consider the interest of tenants when developing programs and making decisions, but this must be weighed against the needs of property owners, taxpayers and the broader community.

Furthermore, the agenda promoted by tenant activist groups often runs counter to the interests of the majority of tenants. For example, the Rent Stabilization Program operates in such a way that tenants are encouraged to remain in rental units longer than they otherwise would, thereby preventing others who may need more urgently to live in Berkeley from occupying those units. Other tenant groups and individuals have actively opposed new construction in Berkeley, despite the fact that these projects offer a large source of funding for affordable housing.

The coalition has a focus that is broader than just short-term profits. Several members of the BRHC organizing committee were vocal opponents of Measure R, which would have effectively put the brakes on new housing and commercial development Downtown. This opposition came in spite of the fact that, from a purely financial perspective, new development hurts incumbent owners by decreasing pressure on rents and lowering the relative value of their property. But defeating Measure R was the right thing to do — for tenants, for small businesses and for the environment.

It’s clear the city needs to update its safety and inspection rules to ensure that tenants are safe. Everyone on the BRHC organizing committee cares about the community and has a vested interest in secure, well-maintained buildings. We also have firsthand experience with the cost of complying with mandates and making often expensive, time-consuming repairs. An effective safety program cannot be crafted without the perspective of property owners. The coalition will help make sure this perspective is included.

There is a lot that the city can and should do for low-income tenants struggling to remain in Berkeley, but it’s also important to acknowledge when abuse of current rules occurs. A very small number of tenants, for example, hold onto rent-controlled units despite holding their primary residence elsewhere.

This was the case with a tenured professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who was allowed to keep a discounted rent in Berkeley despite living in Missouri for more than 40 years. There are also cases of tenants who vacate rent-controlled units and then rent the apartment on Airbnb at a higher rate, collecting the windfall for themselves. In both cases, the current majority on the rent board has taken a position that ignores these abuses. With a more balanced discussion, we can address these problems and ensure that the rules help those who truly need them.

We’re realistic about the political landscape and our ability to change it, and we see this as a two-way street. Just as we accept that Berkeley’s rent stabilization and just cause ordinance is here to stay, so, too, should critics acknowledge that the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995 is established law that is unlikely to be revisited by the California State Legislature.

The challenge and opportunity is to find ways to work constructively to both maintain existing rent-controlled units and build new affordable units that allow people to stay in Berkeley.

The rent board has been dubbed “pro-tenant” or “pro-landlord” depending on which coalition has a majority at the time. We’re not particularly concerned about the label. Rather, we’re interested in advancing policy goals that increase the availability and affordability of housing in Berkeley while ensuring that property owners have a voice in the process. We think those goals are reasonable, and we look forward to being a part of the discussion.

Contact Michael St. John at 


JULY 06, 2015