Public Comment

Commentary: Where Chris Lives and Why It Matters

By David M. Wilson
Friday August 03, 2007

The Planet is to be congratulated. While Matier and Ross broke the story of Chris Kavanagh’s floating domicile, Judith Scherr’s astute reporting adds an awful lot to the picture. Despite filing numerous statements (under penalty of perjury) stating he was a Berkeley tenant, Rent Board Commissioner Chris has apparently lived in Oakland since at least 2001. He has never lived at either 22 Tunnel Road or 2709 Dwight Way, where he has registered to vote. Indeed, he cares so much about his Oakland pad that he is now in court fighting the owner’s effort to move him out. In the meantime, his “residence” is the Elmwood post office.  

Some cynical Berkeleyans will dismiss Chris’s fibs as typical behavior from elected officials. Others will blame political enemies for Kavanagh’s current embarrassment, as if an elected official’s “progressive” views somehow excuse voter fraud. And some will say they just don’t care, because what could be less important than the political backwater that is the Berkeley Rent Board?  

Why does all this matter? Won’t the politicians say a few pious words, sprinkle some holy water, and let the sinner go free, just as they did in 2002 when the problem first came to light?  

I hope not. Voters have a right to expect office-holders to tell the truth. We expect them to obey the law, including the requirement that they reside in Berkeley. Telling the truth and obeying the law is especially important when the elected official serves as a judge. This is the primary function of the Rent Board on which Chris serves: it sits in judgment on hundreds of landlord-tenant disputes, and can award thousands of dollars in fines and damages. Its rulings are given deference by the Superior Court. Its budget of $3.3 million, and its staff of 20, are impervious to review by the City Council or anyone else. This is real power, and (as the saying goes) power corrupts.  

The city must go beyond the simple issue of where Chris Kavanagh lays his weary head. Let us take the situation of Marc Janowitz, who was Vice Chair of the Rent Board prior to 2002. Janowitz left the Board, and sponsored Chris Kavanagh as a successor. He then migrated to private practice with the East Bay Community Law Center. EBCLC solicits tax-deductible contributions, supposedly to provide legal services to poverty-stricken tenants. Indeed, once on the Rent Board, Kavanagh joined in voting for contracts that have brought more than $500,000 in legal fees (funded by taxes on landlords) to Janowitz and EBCLC. Now, Janowitz and the EBCLC represent Kavanagh personally in a matter that seems to show beyond question that Kavanagh has for years been ineligible to serve on the Rent Board.  

This is what they call a conflict of interest, and may be something worse.  

Add the Section 8 scandal (where Kavanagh was the strongest defender of the status quo), and the near bankruptcy of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (which Kavanagh administered for some years as a Housing Advisory Commis-sioner), and you get the idea. Berkeley housing policy consists of (1) a federal Section 8 program, which has been found to be riddled with incompetence and outright corruption; (2) a rent control program that protects very few tenants, but provides millions in salaries, benefits and third party payments to a “progressive” slate and its friends; and (3) “smart growth” policies that have alienated the neighborhoods and emptied the Trust Fund.  

These policies have been sold to us by an inbred group of elected officials and staffers who support each other tenaciously. I don’t expect the Rent Board to do anything about their fellow member, perhaps because they themselves have known the truth for a long time. Nor will the Council majority do much: a lot of them are Kavanagh’s political allies who have no more desire to probe Rent Board operations than they had to investigate the Section 8 mess when it first came to light in 2002.  

But once more for the record: even folks who come to power with good intentions are subject to temptation. Those who come to power with no scruples at all will be corrupted. That is what has happened here, and what must be investigated if we are to maintain any pretense of open and democratic government.  


David Wilson has been Berkeley resident for 45 years. Though sympatheitc to some of its goals, he is not a part of BPOA.