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Issues, not candidates, at heart of rent board race

By Matthew Artz
Friday October 18, 2002


With November election battles heating up, the five candidates for Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board may be the most confident politicians in town. 

For the second consecutive election, Berkeley landlords have opted not to oppose the pro-tenant slate for five open rent board seats. Landlords have conceded the races since, to their liking, state legislation tempered city rent control laws. 

The rent board, which consists of nine elected commissioners and a handful of full-time staff, was constituted in 1980 to govern Berkeley’s rent control laws. The commissioners decide the annual rent increases for controlled units, determine if landlords are entitled to rent increases if they make property improvements and act as an appeals court in landlord-tenant disputes. 

Although pro-tenant candidates – selected at a progressive nominating convention in April – are assured victory, they say they have campaigned hard. 

“It’s important that people know there is still rent control in Berkeley and that tenants still have protections,” said Selma Spector, who is the only incumbent running for re-election. 

Joining Spector on the pro-tenant ticket are: Howard Chong, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who was appointed to the rent board last May to replace an outgoing member; Chris Kavenaugh, a former Green Party candidate for the 8th District City Council seat; Bob Evans, a tenant’s rights attorney; and Pinkie Payne, a Housing Authority Commissioner representing residents of federally-subsidized housing. 

Front and center on all the candidates agendas is how to weaken the Costa-Hawkins Act, passed by the state legislature in 1995, ending rent control on vacant units, single family dwellings and all units built after 1995. Rent control continues on occupied dwellings, for which the rent board sets annual rent increases. 

Since Costa-Hawkins was fully implemented in late 1998, more than 50 percent of Berkeley rental units have been raised to market rents, according to Spector. The average price of a one-bedroom apartment has jumped from $763 in 1998 to $1,202 this July, according Cal Rentals which tracks rental prices paid by UC Berkeley students. 

Although the law is now seven years old, Costa-Hawkins continues to dominate Berkeley housing politics and figures prominently in November’s election. 

Robert Cabrera of the Berkeley Property Owners Association insists Costa-Hawkins has been a boon for Berkeley. He noted that since developers and landlords can now get market rents for new and vacant apartments, they have incentive to put new units on the market and make repairs to older units, which he says has reduced the city’s housing shortage. 

But rent board candidates say Costa-Hawkins has given some landlords the incentive to unfairly evict current tenants so they can turn around and charge higher, market rates to new tenants. 

Spector said she has seen a sharp increase in cases in which landlords have pretended they needed to move in to an occupied apartment or prevented tenants from replacing a roommate to force tenants to vacate the unit so the landlord can rent it at market rates. 

To combat these perceived abuses, the rent board has expanded its traditional functions and started programs aimed at making evictions more difficult and informing tenants of their rights. For instance, the rent board recently passed a rule that any roommate added within 30 days after the signing of a lease must be placed on the lease. The board also instituted a program, which was later dropped, to provide free legal representation to tenants. 

Landlords, though, say these programs and rent board judicial decisions have been blatantly pro-tenant and have undermined the credibility of the board.  

But Commissioner Howard Chong said the rent board has merely been fulfilling it’s duty to tenants. 

“The rent ordinance is pro-tenant, so our job is to provide tenant protections,” he said. 

He and his fellow candidates all want to expand pro-tenant programs. 

Pinkie Payne said she wants the rent board to broaden its outreach to non-English speaking tenants who, she said, are more vulnerable to evictions. “If they know their rights then they can fight,” she said last spring. 

Spector wants the rent board to beef up its monitoring of evictions in which the landlord says he’s moving in but doesn’t. She says often the landlord or a family member will pretend to move in to the unit, only to quickly rent it again at market rate.  

Chong said he wanted to improve the hearing process so tenants know what to expect when they argue their cases before a hearing examiner.  

Evans and Kavenaugh offered more ambitious plans. 

Evans said he wanted the rent board to prohibit rent increases when landlords have already used Costa–Hawkins to increase rents above the city average. 

Kavenaugh said he wanted to ally the Berkeley rent board with other municipal rent boards to lobby for the repeal of Costa–Hawkins. Spector said she agreed with the plan, but noted it would take years before a successful campaign could be mounted. 

Cabrera said he feared the next rent board would continue to unfairly discriminate against property owners. “The fox is still in charge of the chicken coup,” he said. “I don’t see any fairness on the horizon.”