Older, disabled and long-term tenants may get a tool to help prevent property owners from moving into their units.
A unanimous City Council voted early Wednesday morning to ask the city attorney to prepare language for a measure that could be placed on the November ballot.
The measure, patterned after one voters adopted in San Francisco, would prohibit landlords from moving into apartments they own, when they are rented by either a person over the age of 60 or by a disabled person.
It would also prohibit landlords with large holdings – those with 10 percent or more ownership in five or more buildings – from moving into apartments where a tenant has lived for more than five years.
Moreover, the initiative would charge the Rent Board with overseeing the residence of a landlord who has evicted tenants and moved into their unit. Currently, a landlord may evict a tenant if the landlord intends to occupy an apartment for at least 36 months.
The board would check the occupancy status twice a year for three years of units in which the landlord has occupied the unit after evicting a tenant.
Tenant activists say that “move-in” evictions have gone up since Jan. 1, 1999, when the Costa-Hawkins bill, which initiated statewide vacancy decontrol, went into effect. This law permits landlords to raise rents as much as the market will bear when a unit is voluntarily vacated.
Housing activists say vacancy decontrol gives landlords the incentive to push tenants out of their units, so that the rents can be raised. Illegal “owner move-ins” is one way of accomplishing this. Unscrupulous owners use the move-in option to circumvent rent control, by getting rid of a tenant and raising the rent, they say.
“We’re seeing abuses of owner move-in evictions in Berkeley,” argued Rent Board Member Mark Janowitz, urging council support for the initiative. “We must protect the most vulnerable.”
Rent board president Randy Silverman added his concerns.
“These days, when tenants are displaced from their homes, that means exile from Berkeley,” he said.
Although the vote was unanimous – with Councilmember Polly Armstrong absent – Mayor Shirley Dean and Councilmember Betty Olds made it clear that their approval was simply to get the ballot language before the council. In June, the council will take up the ballot measure as prepared by the city attorney, and decide whether to place it before the voters.
“I’m not sure I’m going to support this,” Dean said, around 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, near the end of the council’s six-hour meeting. “I want to make it very clear.”
The Berkeley Property Owners Association says the best way to assure a fair deal to tenants is to build more housing, not write new laws that punish landlords who want to earn a fair profit on their property.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington asked the city attorney to include attorneys’ fees in the measure. Worthington said he knows of people who have declined to fight owner move-in evictions because they cannot afford to hire lawyers.