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Rent control revisited

George Azar Berkeley
Friday November 08, 2002


To The Editor: 


Leon Mayeri's selective views and history of Berkeley's voter-approved 1980 Rent Stabilization Ordinance quite literally turn reality on its head (Forum Oct. 24). 

Mr. Mayeri's suggestion that a 45 percent across-the-board rent hike between 1990 and 1994 – the greatest rent increase in rent board history – was “anything but disastrous” for Berkeley's 19,200 rent controlled households is unfortunate. For tenants living in Berkeley at the time, the economic impact of this rent hike was, without exaggeration, staggering. 

Passed by a real estate industry-backed rent board majority, this 45 percent rent hike led directly to the 1994 landslide election victory of an affordable housing rent board slate. Since 1994, affordable housing majorities have won four consecutive rent board elections by wide margins – a solid vote of confidence by Berkeley's voters. 

In his letter, Mr. Mayeri cites a 1990 court decision (the “Searle Decision”) that pertained to the Rent Board. Mr. Mayeri implies that this court decision “ordered” the Rent Board to raise rents across-the-board by 45 percent. This notion is a myth. 

The Searle Decision never mandated or cited a specific rent level adjustment, percentage or number. The judge's decision only required the Rent Board to address the concerns of property owners who owned or bought Berkeley rental units before 1980 – the year Berkeley's rent control program started. 

Seizing upon this 1990 court decision at the time, the real estate-backed Rent Board majority first imposed an arbitrary 28 percent citywide rent hike, then passed additional rent hikes totaling 17 percent over four years (45 percent total). 

The board also imposed this 45 percent increase upon thousands of renters who lived in units purchased by property owners after 1980 – a clear contradiction of the Searle decision's intent. Taken together, all 19,000 rent controlled units were blindsided by these unreasonable and egregious rent increases. 

Finally, Mr. Mayeri complains that no study has ever been conducted to determine the household income of Berkeley tenants (“for fear of revealing the facts” about renter income levels). In fact, the 1990 U.S. Census details both Berkeley renter and property owner income levels. According to the U.S. Census, the median renter-occupied household income stood at $19,000. The median owner-occupied Berkeley household stood at $50,000. Meanwhile, the value of Berkeley property has exploded by 300 to 400 percent between 1980 and 2000. 


George Azar