If you have been following the city’s budget process, you have been appalled at the bad news. For next year, there will be bureaucratic belt-tightening, programmatic budget cuts, increased parking fines, increased general service fees, increased property-based service fees and a brand new fee for landlords to cover rental housing safety inspections. For subsequent years, the picture is much, much worse—big service cuts, big staff cuts and substantial fee and tax increases.
Throughout this process, the city manager and his staff have done an excellent job of explaining various scenarios and rationales for budget cuts and revenue increases. However, they, along with other well-meaning civic participants, are burdened by inherited blinders which limit vision as to what is necessary and appropriate in these difficult times. There is an elephant, or at least a cow, in the room, which they do not see.
The giant animal that has been outside of their vision is Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board. While almost every other city department and function has been microscopically examined for efficiencies and effectiveness, the Rent Board has gotten a free pass. Not only has it eluded all discussion and review, but, in city budget documents, the day-to-day work of the Rent Board has not even been described in any detail, so that a cost-benefit determination and performance audit is all but impossible.
Here is what we do know about the Rent Board. It has 22.30 FTEs—that is, there are more than 22 full-time workers on hand to implement its mandate and operations. In comparison, the Police Review Commission has only four FTEs and a budget of about $350,000. The budget of the Rent Board is more than $2.7 million, and there are indications that, given its way with landlord fees, this budget will increase to almost $3 million over the next few years.
One well may ask—what do these 22 staff people actually do on a day-to-day basis? If the Rent Board mission is mainly to regulate rents overall and respond to specific tenant questions and complaints, do they really need 22 staff people, various consultants and almost $3 million to accomplish this?
Alternatively, if their mission (as stated in the city manager’s budget documents) is also “to ensure compliance with legal obligations relating to rental housing ... and to advance the housing policies of the city with regard to low- and fixed-income persons, minorities, students, disabled and the aged,” then why is the Rent Board budget not available for the myriad of city housing programs that actually perform these functions and are now paid for by the General Fund, including the Housing Trust Fund, the Rental Housing Safety Program, the First Time Homebuyers Program and the various housing advocacy programs that the city funds through nonprofit providers.
Fellow residents, let’s get real. The Rent Board bureaucracy, as it now stands, appears to be a bloated relic cow from another era that is getting fatter and fatter while the rest of us get leaner. It overregulates a shrinking number of housing units and spends vast resources on petty disputes, while leaving the real job of housing creation, housing safety and land use resolution to others, who are scrambling for money that the Rent Board is simply handed.
There is no reason, aside from blinders, sentimentality, political correctness and a fear of change not to subject the Rent Board budget and operations to the same type of review to which all city operations are being subject. Who knows, we may find that we have an extra million or two dollars available to fund our real housing programs and also to save some of our swimming pools, youth centers and public safety services.
Barbara Gilbert is an occasional contributor to the Planet’s Commentary Page.