Berkeley City Council expands tenant protections, talks budget impact of COVID-19

Berkeley City Council
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The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have created an uncertain and potentially long-lasting new reality for Berkeley residents and the city government, city officials said at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

At its regular meeting, Berkeley City Council discussed options for utilizing strategic reserves and deferring certain funding to city departments to make room for a projected $28.7 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2021. The council also passed amendments to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Ordinance, originally adopted in March, to strengthen eviction protections for renters without the means to pay rent during the shelter-in-place order.

“Evictions run contrary to our best strategies for containing COVID-19,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison at the meeting. “People need a place to be if they are to shelter in place during this public health crisis. We must ensure that people are not forced out of their homes.”

According to Harrison, the amendments to the ordinance are intended to bring the city’s policy more in line with similar protections put in place by Alameda County.

Among the revisions are an extension from six to 12 months on the amount of time tenants have to repay missed rent payments; more time to file the proper paperwork with landlords; improvements to tenant rights security; protection from retaliation by landlords; and a prohibition on late fees, fines or interest on missed payments.

“We have spoken to hundreds of tenants over the past couple of months; all of them are terrified,” said Meghan Gordon, director of housing practice at the East Bay Community Law Center, during public comment. “This ordinance is envisioning a repayment plan for landlords, which I think is a fair compromise.”

The item ultimately passed unanimously.

To preface forthcoming budget talks, City Council heard from budget manager Teresa Berkeley-Simmons on the state of the city’s finances.

To help make up for revenue lost as a result of COVID-19, the city is asking various departments to submit a tiered plan for budget deferrals, with proposals for 10%, 12% or 15%.

Berkeley-Simmons also suggested the council take a look at updating the language outlining the city’s ability to access its reserve funds because it is expected that the funds will be needed in the coming fiscal year.

A big challenge will be finding a way for the city to remain “agile” enough to respond to the unprecedented challenges that await in the coming year, according to Berkeley-Simmons.

“We’ve never faced anything like this before; we have no history in which to base our actions,” Berkeley-Simmons said at the meeting. “What we really need is time.

Contact Jacob Souza at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.