Eighty-two percent of Alameda County’s homeless residents previously lived within the county before they lost their homes, according to a 2017 countywide survey, and the homeless population increased 39 percent from 2015 to 2017. Even Berkeley, a prominent college town, has had issues finding enough housing for all its students.
In a housing crisis as pervasive as the Bay Area’s, many people turn to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board for support. This year, eight people are set to compete for five open seats in the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board election.
Five of the candidates — James Chang, Judy Hunt, Paola Laverde, María Poblet and John Selawsky — have prior experience as rent board commissioners. Only three — Soli Alpert, David Buchanan and William “Three Hundred” Caldeira — have not previously served on the board.
Alpert, Selawsky, Poblet, Chang and Laverde have joined together to form the Community Power Slate, running with a shared platform of improving tenant protections and expanding rent control. The slate has been endorsed by the Alameda County Democrats, the Berkeley Tenants Union, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and all members of the current rent board.
While the rent board does not have the power to change the city’s housing policies on its own, the board does regulate rents and evictions for all registered units in the city. The rent board can also advise residents on their legal tenant rights and work with City Council to advance housing policies.
A lack of affordable housing and soaring rent prices are nothing new for the Bay Area. This year’s election, however, will be particularly significant because of the addition of Proposition 10 to the California ballot. If passed, the proposition would repeal the controversial Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law that places limits on the kinds of rent control policies cities can establish and effectively allows landlords to raise rent ceilings anytime after a fixed-term lease expires.
Alpert is taking time off from his fourth year at UC Berkeley. He said he wants to represent the “half of all renters in the city (who) are students.”
Alpert is in strong support of Prop. 10, which he says would restore the “rent control ordinance that Berkeley voters initially passed” and reinstate vacancy controls. Alpert said he also wants to see new rent controlled units constructed with funds from Measure O, which would levy more than $135 million in Berkeley for low-income housing.
Alpert is a legislative assistant to City Councilmember Kate Harrison and is also assisting with District 7 candidate Rigel Robinson’s campaign. Alpert said he wants to use his experience with legislative analysis to help the rent board. He said he also sees owner-occupied duplexes as a place where tenant protections can be extended.
Buchanan is one of the only candidates running for the Rent Stabilization Board with an explicitly pro-landlord position. Describing the rent board as “getting out of hand,” Buchanan, a renter in Berkeley, spoke out against the $250 fee that landlords are required to pay for rental properties. When it comes to a solution for the housing crisis, Buchanan said he sees more development as the only way out — which he believes would be threatened if Prop. 10 were to pass.
Buchanan said he wants to bring a landlord viewpoint to the rent board.
“I’m a landlord in Oakland,” Buchanan said. “I’ve been a renter, and the last seven years I have been renting in Berkeley myself. … If people only have experience as a tenant, they have no idea what it’s like to own and invest property. They don’t always understand the effect of their actions.”
Buchanan also opposes Measure O, saying that public development would add only a small number of units and that “it’s so much more efficient to not be so hostile to private investment.”
Buchanan has been endorsed by fellow candidate Judy Hunt and former City Council member Laurie Capitelli.
William “Three Hundred” Caldeira
Caldeira, who could not be reached for comment, is a Berkeley resident and a landscaper. He has previously served on the city’s homeless commission.
According to Caldeira’s candidate statement, the biggest issues facing housing in Berkeley are rising rents and increasing gentrification. Caldeira added that he believes the rent board itself is part of the affordability problem, alleging that the board demands “exorbitant” rental registration fees from landlords while paying thousands of dollars to lease luxury office space. The board, he alleged, is not doing enough to give working class, senior and college student residents the full protections of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance.
“UC Berkeley has failed to build enough affordable housing for its student and employee population and the (rent board) has not solved that problem,” Caldeira said in his statement. “It is time for new leadership at the (rent board).”
Chang, who is running for a second consecutive term on the rent board, first became involved in affordable housing policy as a UC Berkeley student working with the Berkeley Student Cooperative. After graduating in 2013, Chang served on the rent board starting in 2014, in which he was on the eviction committee and lobbied for increased funding for housing legal services such as the East Bay Community Law Center.
The biggest issue facing housing in Berkeley is affordability, Chang said. While rent was already high when he was first appointed to the board, he said rent prices have “exploded” in the last four years. His main priority is to help stabilize rent prices and prevent displacement by advocating for more affordable student housing, more housing located near public transit and expanded renters’ rights.
“If you’re an older adult, if you can afford to live where you’re living now, you shouldn’t have to risk being displaced,” Chang said.
Chang said he also wants to work with City Council to create a register of all the city’s rental units. If Costa-Hawkins is not repealed through Prop. 10, Chang said, one of the uses for the register could be to track down units without rent control and stop charging those units rent board fees.
Hunt previously served as a rent board commissioner from 2012 to 2016 and currently serves on the Berkeley Board of Library Trustees. She has been endorsed by City Councilmembers Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf, as well as the Berkeley Democratic Club.
Hunt’s main goal is to push for an increase of the affordable housing supply for low- and middle-income residents. To help achieve this, Hunt said she wants the new city auditor to start evaluating the processes for housing projects, approval and other housing permits to determine if there are any redundant policies impeding the development of more housing.
The current rent board, Hunt said, lacks representation from landlords and property owners, something she has continually called attention to in recent years. Hunt has also raised the issue with how the rent board addresses landlords, alleging that the board is disrespectful to property owners, biased toward tenants and fails to acknowledge issues facing landlords of color and seniors who rely on property rentals for income.
“Displacement of people of color is usually defined as meaning African American tenants, without regard for displacement of housing providers of color,” Hunt said in an email. “Most providers are people who saved, bought property as investment for their retirement.”
Laverde is the current Rent Stabilization Board vice chairperson, running for a second term on the board. As a candidate who has experienced no-fault evictions, Laverde emphasized her commitment toward renters. Laverde said she sees the need to strengthen tenant protections because “current state law only protects one side — that’s landlords, developers and property owners.”
During her time on the rent board, Laverde was a member of the outreach committee and worked on improving the board’s public communications. One hurdle she sees for the rent board is that people are not aware of it as a resource for dealing with rent-related problems.
Although Laverde is in favor of more affordable housing development, the solution she sees as necessary is the expansion of rent control — anticipating Costa-Hawkins’ repeal — and fewer unit vacancies.
Poblet was appointed to the rent board in 2017 to replace former commissioner Katherine Harr. Previously, Poblet served for 17 years as the executive director of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, an Oakland-based housing rights organization.
According to Poblet, affordability is the most urgent issue facing Berkeley’s housing crisis, and protecting and expanding rent control should be the city’s highest priority. Poblet said part of the problem is the proliferation of corporate developers who want to build luxury units that are not under rent control, driving housing market prices up. To combat rising rent, Poblet said she wants to support building more affordable housing that is community-controlled, such as land trusts.
Poblet also wants the rent board to start collecting demographic data of who the board provides services for to better understand what housing issues different communities are struggling with and who the housing crisis affects the most.
“I bring a community organizing perspective to the work of public office,” Poblet said. “I think that’s needed now more than ever … coming from a racial equity perspective and inserting that into the making of public policy, the administration of the rent ordinance.”
Selawsky is the current chair of the rent board. He attributes his seniority to being a resident of Berkeley for more than three decades. Selawsky pointed toward increased housing costs as the reason for the decreased diversity over recent years. As a property owner, Selawsky said he views tenant protection as an asset to strengthen communities.
“We have to find ways of mitigating the forces of market rate rents to make sure that people who want to live in Berkeley can live in Berkeley,” Selawsky said.
If re-elected, Selawsky said he would focus on improving tenant protections and anti-displacement mechanisms. He also said he hopes that, in the next three years, the rent board will be able to register every rental unit in the city, which would provide data that would better inform the board’s decisions.
Contact Ashley Wong and Brandon Yung at [email protected].