With the defeat of housing bill SB 827 on Tuesday, the state’s affordable housing crisis is once again the talk of the town — in Berkeley, a movement for increased rent control is picking up speed as rent board elections approach.
On Sunday, the Berkeley Tenant Convention will meet to decide on its pro-tenant slate, composed of five individuals who will run to be elected to Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board.
Currently, there are seven candidates — four of whom are incumbents — vying for the convention’s nomination to the slate:
- James Chang, rent board commissioner
- Paola Laverde, rent board commissioner
- John Selawsky, rent board commissioner
- María Poblet, rent board commissioner
- Stefan Elgstrand, assistant to the mayor
- Soli Alpert, UC Berkeley junior and legislative assistant for Councilmember Kate Harrison
- Christine Schwartz, Commission on Disability commissioner
For the November 2018 elections, voters will be able to elect five individuals to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Anyone can file their intent to run, but these seven candidates have all agreed to run only if they are nominated by the Berkeley Tenant Convention.
Though she is currently on the rent board, Poblet was appointed to serve an interim term for the past year, so this is her first time running for election. As a community organizer for the past 18 years, Poblet said she is well-versed in fighting for tenants’ rights in Black and Latino communities.
“Although everyone is impacted, Black communities, Latino communities and women in these communities are impacted first and worst,” Poblet said. “I’m the newest on the board, and what’s important to me is working with other progressives to have grassroots solutions.”
As Poblet sees it, there is no one person or policy that will solve the housing crisis, but there are steps she wants to take. If re-elected, Poblet plans to focus on repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act — a law that prohibits rent control — and to work toward racial equity in housing policy.
As an advocate for the rights of homeless and disabled people, Schwartz plans to bring her personal experience with homelessness and fighting landlords to the table. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1996 with a sociology degree and has been in the city since.
Schwartz said she has experienced a lot of harassment, intimidation and discrimination from landlords, which has mobilized her on tenants’ rights.
“Not only do I love Berkeley, but I’ve endured these experiences that I’ve had to be forced to fight,” Schwartz said. “Not only do I fight for ourselves, but I fight for others.”
Schwartz said she hopes to improve disaster preparedness of homes in Berkeley and better support tenants struggling with landlords.
Laverde said she is running for re-election because after four years of “learning the ropes,” she’s not quite done yet. Currently, as vice chair of the rent board, Laverde is focused on how the Costa-Hawkins Act has affected Berkeley.
Laverde specifically pointed to the fact that in the past five years, rent for studios has increased by 67 percent, and rent for one-bedroom apartments has increased by 53 percent. These statistics, she said, show how abysmally high the rent in Berkeley is.
“I feel like I’ve learned how to be rent board commissioner and my gears are oiled,” Laverde said. “I feel like everybody is qualified. … It’s a decision for the participants at the convention.”
Chang is running for re-election on a platform to “Amplify the People’s Voice.” Backed by several city figures — including Berkeley City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Kate Harrison and Sophie Hahn — Chang graduated from UC Berkeley in December 2013 and was elected to the rent board in 2014. In his four years on the board, he said he has advocated for statewide renters’ protections and has worked on increasing outreach to tenants through social media.
Chang said he hopes to uplift the voice of marginalized people and wants to inspire other youth to run for office as well.
“I think what really separates me apart is I am really intentional in lifting and amplifying other people’s voices,” Chang said. “I should be nominated by my peers because they can trust me to be a team player.”
After working in Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office for the past four years, Elgstrand decided to tap into his growing knowledge of housing policy and run for rent board. He said he is distinguished by his personal experience as a UC Berkeley student and his professional experience writing tenants’ rights legislation.
Arreguín fully supports Elgstrand, stating that when they first met, Elgstrand was attending UC Berkeley and was active in fighting for more student representation in city politics. He added that Elgstrand has helped author the Tenant Protection Ordinance and the Tenant Buyout Ordinance for the city.
“There are a lot of great candidates running, but Stefan is definitely one of the most experienced running in the race,” Arreguín said.
As chair of the rent board, Selawsky knows exactly what he wants to get done in the next four years. Mobilized by efforts to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, Selawsky said he is passionate about implementing rent control on thousands more units in the city.
“Well, I have a four-year record, I’ve been elected by colleagues two years in a row as chair — that should tell people something,” Selawsky said. “We’ve done really good work, and I just want to continue that work.”
In the past 40 years, Selawsky has been very active in Berkeley — he served on the Berkeley Unified School District board for 12 years and currently serves on the Zoning Adjustment Board and the Board of Library Trustees.
Alpert, a campus junior, is the only student currently vying for a seat on the Rent Stabilization Board. He said wants to work with students and make sure that the rent board properly informs them of their housing rights.
“Student problems on the market are unique and specific, such as all of us being first-time renters,” Alpert said. “We’re moving regularly, so we’re not protected under rent control.”
As the political director for Cal Berkeley Democrats, Alpert said he is heavily involved with the student population and that he is supported by ASUC President Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris and External Affairs Vice President Rigel Robinson.
This year’s slate
The purpose of the slate is to effectively provide voters with a cohesive, progressive group of candidates for the Rent Stabilization Board, according to current rent board Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg, who is on the organizing committee for the Berkeley Tenant Convention.
Any rent board candidates who are backed by landlords would be defeated more easily if all the pro-tenant candidates run together, Simon-Weisberg added.
“All of the non-incumbents have a long history of being very committed to tenant rights. I think that we’re in a great position where all three would be great fits,” Simon-Weisberg said. “We’re in an era where way more folks are getting engaged, and I really want to encourage folks to start at the rent board as a political experience.”