The price of home: Berkeley’s rent stabilization board

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By now, it is a cliché to say that the Bay Area is in a housing crisis. Finding a place to live is hard enough, and affording one is even harder. Tenants and landlords are increasingly at odds. Homeowners and developers often disagree bitterly. There are, however, powerful forces fighting this crisis that have the power to affect every person who sets foot in Berkeley, though chances are good you know almost nothing about the most potent force of all: the Rent Stabilization Board.

The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is an elected, nine-member body whose members serve four-year terms. (Five members were elected Tuesday). The rent board sets limits annually on rent increases in Berkeley and sets ceilings on legal rent landlords may charge. If you rent in Berkeley — and statistically, most places in Berkeley are rentals — you can thank the rent board for ensuring your rent isn’t higher. But the rent board controls more than just pricing: It also upholds landlord and tenant rights, notably including the 2017 Tenant Protection Ordinance and other recent legislation that minimize tenant displacement and prohibit types of tenant income discrimination.

Despite its dry, bureaucratic role, however, the rent board has enormous power to shape life in Berkeley. The rent board’s efforts can improve the quality of life for existing residents, foster socioeconomic diversity by boosting affordability and advocate for development to alleviate the housing shortage. A high cost of living — driven by high housing costs — threatens to displace the historical population of Berkeley, but the rent board acts as a bulwark against such displacement, preserving the character of the city.

The role of the rent board has also rarely been so timely, for the 2018 election cycle saw major policy responses to high rents and the housing shortage. Berkeley’s Measure O, for instance, would authorize $135 million for the construction of new affordable housing, and California’s Proposition 10 would allow cities to enact rent control, which was banned statewide in 1995. The rent board would be greatly empowered by Prop. 10 in particular, and although opponents of rent control argue that it discourages new development, this year’s candidates for the rent board supported Prop. 10 on the grounds that rent control could make Berkeley far more affordable.

In many ways, the rent board’s time has come. Though the Bay Area’s housing crisis is certainly the worst in the state, there are multiple major cities in California whose prohibitive living expenses are pushing longtime residents out of the state. Authorities such as the rent board are the vanguard of the fight to make California a place anyone can afford to go to college, raise a family or retire. Berkeley residents would do well to get to know the members of the rent board, since they will be expected to further protections for tenants, implement possible future rent controls and advocate for sensible new developments that diversify Berkeley without resegregating the city.

Berkeley is at an inflection point as pressure mounts for the city to resolve its homelessness and housing crises, and residents should have extraordinary expectations for a rent board in office at such a watershed moment. Desperate times are demanding increasingly diverse measures, and in coming years, Berkeley will be the epicenter and the laboratory for solutions to the housing crisis — with the rent stabilization board on the front lines.

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected] .