Public Comment

Commentary: Who’s A(n Alleged) Crook Now?

By Albert Sukoffopini
Friday October 05, 2007

The Berkeley Daily Planet published a political cartoon last week which showed a half-dozen snarling dogs surrounding a hunk of meat. The dogs were labeled as Berkeley property owners and the meat “Kavanagh.” There may indeed be a few local property owners who take some small degree of pleasure in the predicament in which Mr. Kavanagh finds himself. These would most likely include those who have been forced to sit and listen to his smug, self-righteous pontificating at rent board hearings where he has positioned himself on the moral high ground and has routinely treated landlords like lying crooks simply because they operate rental property in Berkeley. Now it appears the criminal justice system is telling Mr. Kavanagh to take a look in the mirror if he wants to know who the lying crook really is. 

When the citizens of Berkeley enacted rent control in 1980, the initial registration fee to be charged was $12 per unit. This was the estimate of the likely cost of rent control. If one applies the Consumer Price Index to that fee, it would now be about $30, which would make the Rent Board budget about a half-million dollars. Their current budget, however, is not $500,000 but more like $3,500,000. A rent-controlled apartment which rented for $350 in 1980 would rent for a tad under $900 today, an increase of 156 percent. The Rent Board’s budget over the same period is up over 1,300 percent! 

While the City of Berkeley struggles to keep its budget intact, the Rent Board sees the Berkeley property owner as the politically incorrect sugar-daddy upon whom greater and greater fees can be imposed with impunity. But money isn’t everything—even for landlords. The fees only tell part of the story. The broader tale would center on an inquiry as to why the Rent Board needs 18 employees and over $3.5 million when, for several years now, they have had virtually nothing to do. The original ordinance, still in force as modified, gave the Rent Board three tasks. None of them are now necessary.  

The first of the tasks assigned them was setting the Annual Rent Adjustment (AGA), an increase (or decrease) to be applied across the board to all controlled units. The law has since been modified so that the AGA is now automatic, set at two-thirds of the CPI increase. The Rent Board no longer oversees and deliberates on the annual adjustment to rent. All that is now necessary is for a staff member to look up the appropriate CPI index, divide by three, multiple by two and proclaim the result. Fifteen minutes a year, max.  

Second, the Rent Board is charged with creating, monitoring and administering a process whereby individual property owners can seek an Individual Rent Adjustment (IRA). A decade ago there were hundreds of IRAs a year. The process was often long, involved and complicated. Recently, however, the rules promulgated by the Rent Board have made the granting of IRAs almost impossible. Hearing examiners have been put on temporary assignment to other city agencies for lack of work. There are very few IRAs processed.  

The third charge of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is to maintain a registry of legal rents for all controlled units. Early on, they required annual submission of rents, an elaborate process to be sure. Later they only asked for changes to the registered rent. However, in 1995, the state Legislature overrode the Berkeley rent control law and dictated that the rent for voluntarily vacated units may be raised to market level (and thereafter recontrolled). Owners must now inform the Rent Board only of the rents for newly rented units. Processing these four-line forms is really the only chore left that the Rent Board has to do. It could be handled by a single part-time employee. But even this is totally unnecessary. When owners were required to keep the rent the same between tenants, registration was clearly necessary to assure that they did so. Now, however, every sitting tenant knows his/her legal rent and the legal rent for every new tenant is the rent to which they agree, so they too know their legal base rent. What purpose does registration serve?  

So essentially the Rent Board has nothing to do. Except maybe landlord bashing. From the property-owner point of view, the cartoon in the Planet last week could just as accurately have had the dogs labeled “Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board” and meat labeled “Berkeley Landlords.” And if the Planet ever chose to publish such a cartoon, it would not be inaccurate if the snarlingest dog of all were labeled Chris Kavanagh. Is there a bit of schadenfreude among Berkeley property-owners these days? Maybe.  


Albert Sukoffopini is a Berkeley resident.