Berkeley rent board supports tenant protections, approves registration fee amnesty period

Berkeley rent board meeting
Lisi Ludwig/File
The Berkeley rent board discussed at its Thursday meeting an ordinance that would increase the duration and scope of protection for tenants amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board endorsed legislation that would expand protections for tenants in light of COVID-19 at its regular Thursday meeting.

Discussion of tenants’ and property owners’ financial hardships related to COVID-19 dominated the meeting. The board passed a resolution expanding the amnesty period on registration fees for property owners affected by COVID-19 and supported a potential ordinance that would institute additional tenant protections.

Berkeley City Councilmember Cheryl Davila requested at the meeting that the board support her proposed ordinance, which would expand the duration and scope of protection for tenants in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unreasonable evictions are directly at odds with measures to recover from the pandemic,” Davila said at the meeting. “Housing stability is a prerequisite for flattening the COVID-19 curve.”

Matthew Lewis, a member of the Berkeley Tenants Union, said Davila’s proposal would also create penalties to deter landlords from violating the ordinance and ensure sufficient restitution for tenants if landlords do violate the new protections.

The ordinance would give tenants the maximum amount of time legally allowable to pay back their rents, which would help those who have lost their incomes due to COVID-19, Lewis added.

The proposal also calls on UC Berkeley to voluntarily comply with local ordinances protecting tenants, although as a state agency, UC Berkeley is exempt from most local regulations. According to the ordinance, inconsistent compliance by UC Berkeley has allegedly created “significant problems” for student tenants.

Although all the rent board members present at the meeting said they support the proposed legislation in principle, some members expressed concern regarding the legality of some of its parts. Commissioner Igor Tregub proposed an amendment to support the ordinance in concept, although he and vice chair Leah Simon-Weisberg expressed concern that the proposal had not been analyzed by lawyers and rent board staff for legal soundness.

Specifically, the ordinance would prohibit Ellis Act evictions — evictions that, under state law, are legally made by landlords going out of business. The city attorney has cautioned against prohibiting the Ellis Act, according to Simon-Weisberg.

“It is not a good practice for us to be out of step with every other jurisdiction in our region on a legal issue based on no research,” Simon-Weisberg said at the meeting.

The recommendation to support the ordinance in concept passed, with an added recommendation that the ordinance’s author consult further with legal counsel and rent board staff.

The board also voted unanimously to adopt a policy implementing an amnesty period through Sept. 30 for property owners who have failed to pay registration fees due to financial hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.