Berkeley City Council discusses rent hikes, moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps during COVID-19 pandemic

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During its regular Tuesday meeting, Berkeley City Council discussed ordinances restricting rent hikes and enacting a moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps during the coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting started with the council members and Mayor Jesse Arreguín thanking the community and city staff for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the long hours they work.

“We are not only flattening the curve but squashing the curve,” Arreguín said during the meeting.

City Council then discussed an ordinance that would restrict commercial landlords from increasing rents by more than 10% throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilmember Kate Harrison said landlords have significantly raised rents on tenants in her district, and she alleged that the practice “constructively evicts” tenants.

“I am asking my fellow colleagues to leverage our emergency response power to protect tenants in these difficult times,” Harrison said during the meeting. “The shelter-in-place order gives landlords extremely high bargaining power.”

The item passed unanimously.

Councilmember Cheryl Davila also introduced a resolution to oppose the Alameda County sheriff’s request for a budget increase of $85 million. Davila called the request “inappropriate” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to deal with the homelessness crisis, the affordable housing crisis and now the pandemic,” Davila said at the meeting.

Councilmember Lori Droste, however, disagreed with Davila’s resolution, as she worried opposing the request could prevent funding from going toward mental health support or other improvements. Droste noted that she agreed with Davila and other council members that an audit needed to be conducted on the sheriff’s budget.

The resolution’s language was changed from opposing the budget increase to requesting the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to delay voting.

City Council also discussed a moratorium on sidewalk and street sweeps of homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The lack of a moratorium is putting undue pressure on the unhoused community,” Davila said at the meeting.

Davila added that while the city manager has not enforced street sweeping, the city should still have a moratorium in writing as a promise to the unhoused community. City manager Dee Williams-Ridley added that city staff are being “observant to the needs of the unhoused community.”

While Davila’s motion to pass the moratorium failed, Councilmember Sophie Hahn made a motion to support the city manager’s decision to make enforcement a low priority but to continue to allow action in the cases of health and safety. The motion was carried unanimously with the exception of Davila, who left the meeting before the vote.

“Need is dire, but our response has been on track,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson at the meeting. “I don’t think that our staff needs a broad moratorium restricting their flexibility.”

Robson Swift is a city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.