In a bid to expand Berkeley’s rental housing inspection program, the City Council on Tuesday narrowly approved a controversial new fee for rental property owners. The council vote came after a heated public hearing during which property owners said they are already overburdened with taxes and fees. They called the program flawed and the new fee unfair.
The new $18 per unit annual fee is expected to generate almost $280,000 annually.
By approving the new fee the council has also made available $205,000 in funds from the Community Development Block Grants that would have been used to fund housing inspections. Those Block Grant funds will instead be distributed to several nonprofits and one city agency.
After some discussion and alterations, the council narrowly approved the new fees by a 5-4 vote. Councilmembers Margaret Breland, Betty Olds, Kriss Worthington and Gordon Wozniack voted against the fees.
Before approving the new fees, the council expanded the plan to include single and double-unit properties. Initially the program applied to three or more units.
According to Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz, expanding the program to include one and two-unit buildings will likely decrease the per-unit annual $18 fee, which comes out to $1.50 a month, although he wasn’t yet certain by how much.
The $205,000 in grant money that is freed up by the new fee will be divided among the Housing Trust Fund, Alzheimer’s Service of the East Bay, the Center for Education of the Infant Deaf, the James Kenney Recreation Center and the West Campus Pool.
Michael Wilson, the president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said the council was more interested in giving more grant money away then approving a sensible program.
“It sounded to me like certain council member were adamant about making sure they had their (grant money) regardless of whether this program made any sense whatsoever,” he said.
Councilmember Dona Spring, who supported the new fee, said she would rather see additional funding go to the nonprofits. “It feels like an more appropriate use of the money if it goes to the low-income community,” she said.
But most property owners complained that the City was funding nonprofits by punishing property owners.
“I’m tired of Berkeley landlords being sitting ducks for new and unnecessary bureaucracy,” one property owner said.
Councilmember Gordon Wozniack, who voted against the fee, challenged the report’s conclusion that more fines will be generated by hiring a new inspector.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the fee was unfair to landlords who maintain safe rental property. “I suggested we triple the penalties to landlords who violate building safety codes,” he said on Thursday. “The way it is now, more than half of the $18 fee will go to administrative paper work.”
Property owner Susan Lucas, who owns seven rental units, said Berkeley landlords are already overburdened. She said she pays 18 percent more in property taxes than she did in 1999 and 17 percent more for refuse removal.
Lucas demanded that the council not approve the fee. “Do not prey ceaselessly on my income. Do not presume upon my means and do not approve this cock-a-mamie fee,” she said.
Also, after holding a brief public hearing during which there were no speakers, the council raised fees for 13 city services including ambulance users, recreation programs, permits, sewer service, refuse collection, and the Animal Care Shelter.