How to access tenants’ rights services

Photo of Berkeley Rent Board
Defne Karabatur/Senior Staff

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With UC Berkeley’s housing crisis currently ongoing, a majority of students have been forced to live off campus as the search for more affordable rent, greater physical space than that offered by dorms and a sense of independence continues. 

This presents a challenge to many first-time lease signers; dealing with landlords, rent increases and complex tenants’ rights proves to be difficult.

In the last few months, I have had to contend with my own dispute involving the leasing company that represents the owner of the house that I live in. I hope that my experience and the resources and advice I’ve received can apply to multiple situations and help raise awareness of the tenants’ rights entitled to all students living off campus.

I currently live in a lovely house with eight other tenants, six of whom are moving out next year. The remaining three of us have organized a new group of six students to replace those who will move out. 

The incoming tenants applied through the leasing company’s website as subtenants — essentially, replacement roommates. We originally intended to add them through a sublease addendum to neatly document the change in roommates and confirm that three original tenants were remaining in the unit.

At first everything seemed fine. Our leasing company had no problems with any of the new applications. Rather, the issues started when they suddenly tried to argue that we were not allowed to sign an addendum, and instead needed to sign an entirely new lease. 

Their proposed “new lease” included a rent increase of more than 20%. And their reasoning? We were adding too many new roommates, and the owner did not want to approve. 

This massive jump in the cost of living was certainly undesirable and unaffordable for me and most of my housemates. How could they deny our request for new roommates solely on the grounds that we had too many? 

I was so frustrated and thus determined to search through the Berkeley Rent Ordinance to find out if we were exempt from such a massive price increase. 

The first place I checked out was the Berkeley Rent Board.

“The Ordinance regulates most residential rents in Berkeley, provides tenants with increased protection against unwarranted evictions and is intended to maintain affordable housing and preserve community diversity,” the city of Berkeley website reads. 

Berkeley’s rent laws seek to make the city a more tenant-friendly municipality, so it is essential to know our local laws and how they might differ from another town’s regulations. 

I began by checking whether or not my unit was covered by rent control — turns out it is. Following that, I reached out to a housing counselor through a provided Google form. The form allowed me to set up an appointment with a trained professional within a matter of days. 

I found our conversation extremely helpful. My counselor assured me that my group was well within our rights to receive a rent-controlled lease, one that would maintain the same rates as the original. They pointed out that landlords can only establish a new rent ceiling when all original tenants from a lease have moved out. 

This stipulation is confirmed by the rent board’s guide to subleasing, which affirms that all original residents must move out of a unit before a new initial rent amount can be established.

Otherwise, a new initial rate would mean that the leasing company can set the unit to the current market value, rather than the rent-controlled price. Although landlords do have the right to raise the prices under rent control, they can only do so at a determined rate for an entire calendar year following the year the lease was originally signed. 

For example, a lease signed in 2022 wouldn’t be eligible for an increase under rent control until 2024.

With this information now made clear to me, I felt much more confident and secure in my rights.

I’m so glad my group didn’t just sign a new lease, unaware of the protections offered to us through the Berkeley Rent Ordinance. 

And while I was glad to have chatted with the rent board, I still wanted to speak to a lawyer as well. As it turns out, UC Berkeley offers free legal consulting services for a wide range of issues — tenants’ rights included. It proved an excellent way to take advantage of campus’s network of student services.

I spoke to Mark Lucia, attorney for students and director of campus Student Legal Services, and thoroughly appreciated his counsel. Not only did he affirm what the housing counselor mentioned, but he also directed me to the city’s ordinance on acceptable causes for eviction

It turns out that your landlord can’t evict you for housing subtenants so long as you’ve given proper notice, don’t exceed the number of occupants permitted under the original lease and provide sufficient information for a standard background check on any new subtenant. 

This essentially guaranteed that we were not at risk of eviction for adding subtenants because the leasing company never provided a substantial reason for denying them. We were also in compliance with the standing procedures for adding new subtenants to our lease.

With legal precedent established, it was time to communicate what I had found to my leasing company. 

Student Legal Services prepared me a written summary of the rights afforded to Berkeley renters, which I then sent to my leasing company. 

Fortunately, this led to a good-faith discussion between my group and the leasing company. Had this not occured, I had prepared by researching other options in case we received a less-than-savory response. 

Firstly, the rent board offers a free and quick mediation service where they will help resolve any problems between you and your current landlord over the phone. The advantage of this approach is that it can be done quickly and without the need for extensive paperwork. On the other hand, it will require that your landlord voluntarily makes a good-faith effort to address any disputes or disagreements.

If mediation fails the next option is to file an official petition with the rent board. While there are a wide range of petitions offered for specific circumstances, the one that applies to this case is the section entitled “Petition for Eligibility to Set Initial Rent,” which you can file through this form

Ideally, your landlord will respect local ordinances and understand how and when rent control applies. If an improper rent increase is imposed, even if accidentally, it is essential that tenants understand the laws that protect them and the services available to help support their case. 

This applies even more to students and first-time renters, who usually don’t have experience dealing with landlords and navigating written legal codes. 

My case is just one of the many potential ways for landlords to take advantage of UC Berkeley students. I strongly recommend reading over the Berkeley Rent Board’s student and more comprehensive guide to rent control and eviction protection. Who knows, it just might come in handy for you too.

Contact Alexander Christiano at [email protected]