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Rent Board Orders Council Aide To Repay Overcharged Tenants

By Matthew Artz
Friday February 27, 2004

A champion of Berkeley rent control was ordered last week to pay his former tenants more than $100,000 in restitution by the very rent board he campaigned to create. 

By a unanimous vote, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board found that Michael Berkowitz, a paid aide to Councilmember Maudelle Shirek, had willfully misrepresented his residency status at his 2820 Derby St. property to skirt rent control. Berkowitz also works in a second position as chief of information services and neighborhood planning for the City of San Francisco. 

The award reflects the total amount Berkowitz overcharged his tenants each month since 1992. 

Asked to comment at a city council meeting several days after the Rent Stabilization Board’s decision, Shirek said she had not heard about the case against her aide. 

Berkowitz says he made no intentional attempt to avoid rent control. 

“I made a mistake. I thought I was covered, but it was not willful or malicious or anything like that,” he told the rent board. He added in an interview Wednesday he was unsure if he would appeal the decision to the Alameda County Superior Court.  

But the fact that the Rent Board dinged Berkowitz for the entire amount of the back rent means that it found his actions intentional. If the Rent Board had found the increases unintentional, the landlord could have been found liable for only three years’ back rent. 

The $112,382.40 total award will be held in escrow while all of the former tenants are located. 

Berkowitz sold the house after a Rent Board hearing officer initially ruled against him in the matter last October. Last week’s full Rent Board decision was on an appeal from that initial finding.  

None of the tenants involved in the complaint chose to comment for this story. All moved out of the house shortly after the hearing examiner’s decision in October.  

Berkowitz campaigned for the passage of Berkeley’s rent control ordinance and worked for the rent board briefly in addition to serving on the Zoning Adjustment Board. Rent Board sources said privately that Berkowitz is seen as a trusted ally by the nine-member pro-tenant board, which served as his jury, and that he had close relationships with several board members.  

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that if the findings were true, “Such charges would be extremely ironic and perceived by many people to be hypocritical considering [Berkowitz is] a longtime progressive activist who has benefited thousands of tenants by his advocacy.” 

Former rent board commissioner Bob Migdal, who served on a landlord majority board, applauded the rent board’s decision. “Hats off to them for not caving into their political buddies,” he said, adding that during his time on the board, the landlord majority found a fellow landlord liable for nearly $100,000 damages. 

Berkowitz’ Derby Street tenants filed a complaint against him with the rent board last August when Berkowitz announced he was raising the rent on the five-bedroom house by $375 a month to $3,500—the second large rent increase in two years. The house also has a back cottage. 

Rent board records showed that when Berkowitz bought the house in 1992, he removed it from city rent control restrictions by declaring the home as his principal residence. That was a claim that both current and former tenants contested. Berkowitz owned two other Berkeley homes as well. 

Berkowitz rented the house in September of 1992 to four tenants, charging them a total of $2,600 a month. In November of that same year, he was notified by the Rent Board that this was almost twice the maximum amount he could charge under Berkeley’s rent control ordinance at the time. A month later, Berkowitz filed a claim that the Derby Street residence was his permanent home, exempting it from rent control. 

According to last week’s ruling by the rent board, that was not true. 

In an interview with the Daily Planet, Berkowitz said he was “bouncing around” at the time he bought the Derby Street home, but did intend to live there, and resided in the house from June 1994 until November 1995 and from late 1999 until September 2001.  

In rent board papers, the tenants confirmed that the landlord used the house during that period, but argued Berkowitz was never a full-time resident. 

Rent Board Counsel Brian Kelly acknowledged Berkowitz received mail at the address including bank statements, Dissolution of Marriage papers and a voter registration card, but did not offer copies of his automobile registration, driver’s license or house insurance as he had in 1990 to prove a different address as his principal residence. “If the appellant had, indeed, changed his principal residence…it is reasonable to expect this change would have been reflected…on these documents,” Kelly wrote. 

The Berkeley rent board sues between 40-50 landlords a year for not registering their properties and hears about 20 tenant-initiated complaints about landlords not registering with the rent board to avoid rent control.