Rent Board Budget Could Fund Schools

by Tom Ferentz
Friday July 02, 2004

Editors, Daily Planet: 

I am pleased to read the letters and article in the Daily Planet about the Rent Board. It is telling that the reasoned arguments are the ones critical of the behavior of this city agency. 

It is truly unfortunate that so much antagonistic law has been codified. Rent control, on the face of it, does make a certain sense. Creating an expensive bureaucracy that criminalizes the business of landlords does not. Rental Ordinance rules are designed to entrap landlords, and opportunistically levy unusually high penalties too feed a bloated city agency. They are not an honest result of “progressive” thinking. They are more like a war conducted by people who started out resenting paying rent and just never grew out of it.  

The logic ignores the real costs of owning property and rent control as an economic force itself. No sensible property owner can afford to rent a vacant unit at anything but the very top of the market precisely because, once it is rented, the rent is then fixed until the next vacancy comes along. If the rent is too good a deal, that may never happen. Good deals are, unfortunately, serious traps for Berkeley landlords to avoid. That is why prices in Berkeley stay at their highest during periods in which there is a glut of rentals on the market.  

Property ownership, particularly of smaller properties, is often a family owned business. It is a way to have an investment in the future while raising children. It is a way to fund their college. In some cases, it is a way to continue working in the non-profit sector or, for example, as an adjunct faculty at a state university, where there are no job protections. For some people, it allows for a socially beneficial and/or artistic career without having to ignore one’s personal responsibilities. For immigrants, it is the primary mechanism to become empowered in a society, economically and politically, and it is that for all low-income people. 

Ideologues frequently like to describe the world in the most simplistic terms. For them, it is a “my way or the highway” situation, because to them the world is essentially harsh, and lacking in subtleties. Personally, I find this the most destructive impulse among many of those who describe themselves as progressive. They have heroes and villains and that’s it! In the world described by the Berkeley Rental Ordinance, it is painfully obvious that the Rent Board sees itself as the champion of the always-victimized tenant against the always-greedy landlord. Real life, of course, does not toe this version of a line in the sand. 

You have to wonder then, about the wisdom of appointing teenagers to the Rent Board. However, there is a possibility for a greater wisdom here. How about starting an initiative to the voters to redirect the rental registration fees that fund this multi-million dollar agency and pour them right into our public schools. This would solve the school districts budget crisis, allow for improvement, and greatly improve access to quality public education for all. Since education is the best route to social justice and a better life, everyone would benefit. Let’s stop wasting money and preserve the quality of our schools!  

Tom Ferentz