Berkeley City Council adds rent control exemptions to November ballot

City Council Meeting 4/30/19
Ireland Wagner/File
Berkeley City Council approved various November ballot measures, including one that, if passed, will alter rent control policies.

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On Thursday, Berkeley City Council approved a ballot measure that, if passed, will prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent during state or local emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure would also create a rent board registration fee that will be used to assist landlords and tenants who live in single-family homes, condominiums or rental units. Landlords who lived in single-family homes one year prior to renting for no more than two years will be exempt from paying the new registration fee.

Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, on multifamily plots would also no longer be exempt from rent control under the measure.

While the eviction item passed unanimously, Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani, Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf opposed the ADU and registration items.

“I love these reforms,” said Andrea Henson, Berkeley resident and attorney at the Eviction Defense Center, during the meeting. “This type of reform codifies what we need. We have a shelter crisis, a pandemic and an economic crisis.”

Councilmember Sophie Hahn said at the meeting that the ADU exemption from rent control was originally passed when California defined an ADU as only being possible on a single-family plot.

After 2018, however, California redefined ADUs as being possible on multifamily plots, Hahn added during the meeting. According to Hahn, the effect of the new ADU item would be to remove the Berkeley rent control exemption for multifamily homes with an ADU on the plot.

“The operation of the ADU rule is completely absurd,” Hahn said in the meeting. “It is not what we ever intended. … It operates to get rid of a ton of rent-controlled units in Berkeley.”

Several residents did not agree with removing the ADU exemption from multifamily plots, however, saying the original intent of the exemption was to encourage homeowners to build ADUs as affordable housing.

Before continuing to the other topics of the evening, the council approved a ballot measure to repeal the residency requirement for Berkeley Fire Department members and another to adjust the salaries of unrepresented city employees.

Keeping salaries in mind, the council then moved on to discuss whether its measure to raise the mayor’s compensation to Alameda County’s median income for a three-person household and council member salaries to 63% of that should be on the November ballot.

Additionally, the measure would mandate that if city employee salaries are reduced, the council members’ would also be reduced.

Harrison said the current salaries, which were set more than 20 years ago, have made it impossible for members of diverse communities to serve. She added that the current pay does not reflect the workload of council members and that she cannot continue serving if the measure is not passed.

“There’s no virtue in perpetuating an inequitable policy of ensuring that only independently financially stable council members or those that are true martyrs can serve on the council,” Harrison said at the meeting. “How can we really lead our community if we are one (paycheck) away from financial ruin and eviction?”

Though many council members agreed with Harrison’s rationale, Droste, who has previously supported the raise, said “it just feels wrong to ask for a raise” during the current economic recession.

Nonetheless, the item unanimously passed with Kesarwani and Droste abstaining and will appear on the ballot in November alongside City Council’s item to establish a climate equity action fund.

The referendum would increase utility users’ taxes on electricity and gas from 7.5% to 10%, with exemptions for low-income customers, if approved by voters in November. Deputy City Manager David White estimated that the measure would generate $2.4 million annually toward a climate equity action fund.

According to Harrison, the measure aids the issue of climate change as well as inequity.

“For the cost of a latte, we can be helping our neighbors avoid the cost of a meal,” Harrison said at the meeting.

Some, including Sierra Club member Igor Tregub, dubbed the plan “Berkeley’s very own Green New Deal,” while Kesarwani and others argued that “this is the worst time” to be taxing people. 

Though Kesarwani abstained, the item was approved by City Council.

Contact Eric Rogers and Veronica Roseborough at [email protected].