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Landlords want rent control out of General Plan

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Friday March 02, 2001

Berkeley landlords turned out en masse Wednesday night to protest language in a Planning Commission Draft General Plan that calls for continuation of rent control and other rent stabilization measures in Berkeley. 

Other Berkeley residents packed into the auditorium of the North Berkeley Senior Center Wednesday called for more measures to reduce traffic congestion and increase green space in the city.  

It was the commission’s last public hearing to take input for the draft plan. A statement of community priorities intended to guide public decision making, the General Plan would replace the Berkeley Master Plan of 1977. The Planning Commission has taken public comment on the various iterations of the plan for the last year-and-a-half and hopes to submit its Draft General Plan to the City Council for consideration and adoption by May. 

“Rent control in many communities has reduced the quality and quantity of available housing,” Robert Cabrera, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, told the commission Wednesday. “It’s regrettable that the city of Berkeley continues to promote a policy whose costs fall disproportionately on the poor.” 

Cabrera blamed rent control for a precipitous decline in rented single family homes since 1980, saying landlords opt to sell into the lucrative market for home ownership rather than rent at low rates sure to limit their profits. 

Half a dozen other property owners lambasted the draft plan for promoting rent stabilization policies such as rent control, calling the policies unfair and counterproductive. 

“Some of my tenants make more money than I’m making and I’m supporting them,” complained Berkeley landlord Colette Ford.  

“Where’s the means test?” Ford asked the commission. “Are we really providing affordable housing for those people who need it? I don’t think so.” 

Berkeley landlord Dave Myers agreed. 

“I have tenants who make more than $50,000 a year and pay less than my low income residents,” Myers said.  

Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn disputed the claims in an interview after the meeting. 

“There is a lot of mythology around rent control, like the myth of the affluent tenant,” Myers said. “The actual data from the census and surveys (conducted by the city) shows that the majority of tenants (in rent controlled units) are either low income or very low-income.” 

That’s not including UC Berkeley students, Wrenn added, whose low-income status is could easily be called into question. 

“Rent control has clearly allowed many low-income residents to stay in Berkeley (over the last 20 years),” Wrenn said.  

Wrenn conceded that there has been a decline of affordable rental units, in part due to landlords fleeing rent control restrictions by converting to owner-occupancy units such as condominiums.  

But citing the high costs of non-rent-controlled units in Berkeley today – an average of $1,450 for a two-bedroom apartment – Wrenn said: “I find it really kind of amazing in this particularly over-heated market that people can argue against rent controls.” 

Wrenn also dismissed the landlord argument that an end to rent control would lead to more affordable housing. The only new affordable housing being built today is subsidized housing. “That’s going to get built regardless of whether we have rent control or not,” Wrenn said. 

Landlords Wednesday also protested the Draft General Plan’s recommendation that the city advocate the repeal of – or exemption from – the state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. The act allows landlords to raise rents to whatever level they want after tenants vacate rent controlled units and guarantees that all new rental construction will be exempt from rent control. 

Rent control already “exacerbates housing shortages by discouraging maintenance and construction of new housing,” said a letter signed by several Berkeley landlords and submitted to the planning commission Wednesday. If the guarantee that new housing will be exempt from rent control is lost, developers will be very reluctant to invest in “desperately needed new units,” the letter contends. 

Another vocal group of citizens Wednesday reiterated their protests from the last planning commission meeting that language in the Draft General Plan advocates increased car traffic control measures for some residential streets and not for others.  

“A guiding principle of Berkeley’s general plan should be that every residential area deserves relief from traffic-related air pollution, noise, visual impacts and safety hazards...,” said Berkeley resident Kate Nichol. 

Others went further, calling on the commission to devise more strategies to reduce, and not just control, automobile traffic. 

“We’re drowning in car traffic,” said Jason Meggs of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition. “Traversing downtown Berkeley on a bike is much like traversing a mine the tanks roll in.” 

Supporters of a so-called Ecocity Amendment to the draft general plan called for stringent, environmental-friendly requirements for all new construction. They advocated, among other things, a policy that would allow developers to build buildings with more floor area than is currently allowed if they contribute money to a fund for environmental restoration projects. 

Wrenn said the draft plan already addresses many of the concerns mentioned Wednesday. It promotes energy efficient buildings, calls for future development to be concentrated around transit centers to reduce auto traffic, and proposes an “eco-pass” where employers could buy bus and BART transit passes for their employees at discounted rates, he said.  

An “eco-pass” plan in Silicon Valley has greatly increased public transit use by employees of participating companies, Wrenn added.  

As for the idea allowing developers to build bigger buildings if they contribute to environmental restoration, Wrenn said he would like to see the idea included in the General Plan. The city has already considered plans to restore underground streams to daylight, creating new green corridors, Wrenn said. An environmental restoration fund could be used for such projects, he added.