Sunday Convention Will Choose Rent Stabilization Board Slate

By Judith Scherr
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:00:00 AM

On Sunday, a group of self-identified progressives will select five candidates to form a slate to fill the five vacancies on the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. 

The convention, open to all people living in Berkeley, will take place Sunday, August 3, 4–8 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Hearst Avenue at Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Attendees are asked to pay a sliding-scale admission at the door. 

Members of Berkeley’s eight-member board regulate residential rent increases and “protect against unwarranted rent increases and evictions and ... provide a fair return to property owners,” according to the board’s mission statement. They also are charged with advancing the city’s affordable housing policies with respect to “low- and fixed-income persons, minorities, students, disabled, and the aged.” 

The convention, sponsored by the Committee to Defend Affordable Housing, is preceded by the work of a screening committee. All candidates respond to a questionnaire asking about their positions related to affordable housing and rent control. Screeners make recommendations to the convention based on candidates’ responses.  

In the past, the screening committee had been made up of former rent-board members and representatives named by various organizations—the Green Party, CalDems, the Wellstone Democratic Club, the Gray Panthers, the disabled community and Berkeley Citizens Action. More recently the screeners are members of these groups but are not necessarily elected by them as representatives, according to Selma Spector, a former rent-board member helping to plan the convention. 

Spector said that, while not all candidates had made their candidacies known in time to go through the screening process, all candidates will have a chance to be heard at the convention. 

The need to select a slate of pro-rent-control candidates came about because landlords were putting up their own slate, Spector said.  

But after vacancy decontrol—where rents on apartments under rent control can be raised as high as the owner wishes when the units become vacant—became effective in the mid 1990s, landlords stopped vying for the seats, she said.  

Berkeley is a transient town, and “landlords felt they got what they wanted,” Spector said. Since that time, landlords have tried mainly to put measures on the ballot to make it easier to evict people, she said. 

There are, however, critics of the convention. “It’s a wonderful concept but not a wonderful process,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet. 

“It’s always a scramble to try to pull things together on time,” he said. “It’s not always known who is running” when the convention takes place. 

Another problem is the way it is organized, candidates can bring along people to vote for them. “Somebody can try to pack the convention,” Worthington said. 

One critic, who asked that his name not be used because of work-related reasons, said the process was flawed because the screeners and attendees “are a very self-selecting group, with little representation from tenants at large. It’s a little sandbox for student-government types, with a Peace and Freedom faction, a Green faction, and a Kriss Worthington–student faction,” he said. 

The critic, a supporter of rent control, concluded, “The process attracts marginal candidates and marginalizes rent control because of the caliber of people who get on the board.” 

Spector, however, said just the opposite was true. The screening and convention process leads to a slate of strong candidates, she said, arguing that people would learn about the convention through the Planet calendar and announcements on KPFA and through the various organizations involved in screening. 

Worthington argued that the need for a strong, unified rent board outweighs the problems in selecting it. If there were landlords who decided to run for the open seats, it might take a slate to beat them, he said, giving the example of a pack of progressive council candidates in District 4 that, he said, could result in none of them winning and a moderate being elected. 

Spector said a strong rent board is more critical now than ever, with a need to work on issues of eviction of renters due to foreclosure on their units. And, she noted, “People losing these homes have to rent.” 

“People are losing their jobs—we have to keep rents controlled,” Spector said. 

Generally, those elected to the rent board serve four-year terms. In this election, the low-vote getter among the five winning candidates will serve two years. That person will replace a member appointed a few months ago, whose term will end with an elected replacement. The appointed member replaced Chris Kavanagh, a rent-board member convicted of a felony related to his living in Oakland and serving as an elected official in Berkeley. 

Those vying for the rent board to date are incumbents Eleanor Walden and Jack Harrison. Incumbent Rent Stabilization Board Chair Jesse Arreguin is running for City Council in District 4; rent board member Jason Overman has decided that he wants to “explore other ways of being active for progressive causes in the community” and is not running. Because sitting rent board members are not in the race, the Aug. 8 date for submission of rent board nominations is pushed back to Aug. 13. 

The other candidates are Nicole Drake, Robert Evans, Judy Shelton, Jane Welford, Marcia Levenson, Jesse Townley, Taylor Kelly and Igor Tregub. 

Formerly announced candidates Judy Ann Alberti and Clydis Ruth Rogers are not running.