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Tenants’ Convention Nominates Rent Board Candidates

By Steven Finacom
Monday July 26, 2010 - 07:45:00 PM
Flyer for Tenants’ Convention
Flyer for Tenants’ Convention
The ten individuals seeking the progressive slate nomination answered audience
            questions after making short prepared statements. From left to right, Furtado,
            Harr, Stephens, Webster, Sot-Vigil, Townley, Dodsworth, Blake, Levenson,
Steven Finacom
The ten individuals seeking the progressive slate nomination answered audience questions after making short prepared statements. From left to right, Furtado, Harr, Stephens, Webster, Sot-Vigil, Townley, Dodsworth, Blake, Levenson, Perezvelez.

About one hundred Berkeley residents gathered at the South Berkeley Senior Center on Sunday afternoon as a Berkeley Tenants Convention to nominate “the next progressive Rent Board slate” for the November 2010 election. 


Out of ten individuals offering themselves for nomination, five Rent Stabilization Board incumbents and one newcomer—Asa Dodsworth—were ultimately selected by secret ballot as the six-member slate. 


Current Rent Board Chair Lisa Stephens led the vote tally followed by fellow incumbent Dave Blake. Incumbents Pam Webster and Kathy Harr tied for third, and Jesse Townley placed fifth. Four of those selected are previously elected members of the Board. Harr was appointed earlier this year, to fill a vacancy. 


“We have an excellent slate. The five people we’ve chosen are already working and can continue to work on important issues,” said Stephens after the results were announced. 


“The sixth person the convention chose is a homeboy”, she added. “ Asa Dodsworth grew up in Berkeley, he went to Berkeley High School, he understands the issues, and he’s a hard worker.” 


Others seeking the slate endorsement but not selected were Ipsheeta Furtado, Marcia Levenson, George Perezvelez, and Alejandro Soto-Vigil. 


Any Berkeley resident who attended, signed in, and stayed through the speeches and questions was entitled to a ballot. Ninety-eight ballots were cast and tallied. The voting followed an instant run-off system, in which the last place voter getter in any round was eliminated and the next place votes on the ballots for them were transferred to other candidates. 


All but Perezvelez pledged to back the final slate, rather than running independently if they were not selected. According to the rules of the convention—announced before the voting—his first place votes were not counted and his second place votes were immediately transferred to other candidates. 


There was little visible disagreement on core issues between the candidates as they spoke, although some chose to emphasize different topics and themes. 


They identified a range of issues facing renters in Berkeley, including: 


· the problem of “soft story” buildings vulnerable in an earthquake, and disclosures for tenants about seismic condition when they sign their leases; 


· difficulty for renters in accessing recycling and green technologies for their units; 


· education for tenants unaware of their rights under Berkeley’s rent stabilization and eviction for good cause ordinance 


Incumbent Dave Blake said the Rent Board needed to continue to “push the City government for more progressive housing policies and to advocate for tenants rights.”  


“I came to the Board as a landlord”, he said, “But I was a tenant for 30 years. We have it so good in Berkeley because we have this strong rent control, and people tend to get complacent about it.” 


He said that while city leaders talk about building affordable new housing units, the rents for those created are often above those paid by existing low-income tenants. “Whenever anyone brings up ‘affordable housing’, ask them what they’re doing about existing housing,” he suggested. 


Current Rent Board Chair Lisa Stephens said she came to Berkeley as a student in 1976, “and have been a tenant this entire time.” I’ve worked on every campaign where we had to do something about housing”, she said. “I would like you to return me to the Board so I can continue to do good work.” 


“The economic downtown just didn’t just affect people with property and money”, she added. “We can’t let the hard times translate into homeless people, poor people, the disabled, losing their rights…we have to be more diligent now because the pressure’s on.” 


She said a key priority for her was getting the City of Berkeley’s soft-story ordinance. Berkeley has a large number of “soft story” buildings, often apartment complexes, where the main structure sits over a garage and is vulnerable to collapse in a strong earthquake. The City has mandated their retrofit against earthquakes, but policy on the source of funding—particularly whether rents are increased to pay for the retrofits—has not yet been established.  


Pam Webster said she had been evicted twice, the second time while pregnant. “It was one of the most upsetting, disruptive experiences of my life,” she said. She has lived in Berkeley for 23 years. 


“We probably have the strongest ordinance protecting tenants in the country, and we also have a smart and dedicated staff”, she added. 


Kathy Harr, a relative newcomer to the Board, said she had worked for twelve years on tenant’s rights issues, initially in San Francisco. Last year she moved to Berkeley and bought a foreclosed duplex. “Now I am a small landlord”, she said. “I believe that housing is a human right.” 


Jesse Townley said he moved to Berkeley in 1989, and has volunteered for many years at 920 Gilman (the northwest Berkeley music venue) and KALX radio, and was an early member of the Green Party. He also ran for City Council some years ago. 


He also emphasized earthquake retrofitting of rental housing. “Earthquake safety is literally life and death—people being crushed under concrete. Our city straddles the next likely earthquake fault to go.”  


“I was born and raised in Berkeley, and I’ve watched my friends move to Oakland where it’s affordable”, Asa Dodsworth said. “Rent control is amazing, and I didn’t know that until I traveled outside Berkeley.” 


He stressed seismic retrofits, public information for tenants, and more opportunities to participate in environmental practices such as recycling for Berkeley’s renter population. 


A number of the candidates noted recycling as an issue, saying that on practical matters as small as getting a green container for household kitchen waste, or having sufficient recycling bins for apartment complexes, Berkeley lags in service, compared to what is done for single-family homeowners. 


Marcia Levenson said she had moved to Berkeley 24 years ago, earned a Master’s Degree from UC Berkeley, and is now partially disabled, and had served on the Community Health Commission. “We all live here, at least we’re trying to, thanks to the rent stabilization ordinance.” 


She identified priorities of an anti-harassment ordinance for tenants, strengthening habitability regulations and, like the other candidates, implementing the City’s soft story ordinance. 


Ipsheeta Furtado said she was a second-generation immigrant, and graduated from UC in 2008. “My ability to live in a safe space with the small savings I have is not only a gift, but a right,” she said. She encouraged the selection of a diverse slate. 


George Perezvelez, who is on the Police Review Commission and the Commission on Labor, described himself as “gay, Hispanic, and opinionated” and said he had moved to Berkeley with his partner nearly ten years ago. “Please make the slate diverse,” he said. “Do not gentrify the Rent Board.” 


Alejandro Soto Vigil arrived late at the meeting but had been nominated from the floor. He made a brief statement during the question and answer period, and answered questions. 


A screening committee including representatives from the Peace and Freedom Party, CalPIRG, the Cal Democrats, Berkeley Citizens Action, the Gray Panthers, and the Green Party of Alameda County had interviewed nine of the ten candidates in advance of the meeting. A table showing the Screening Committee recommendations was distributed to those attending.  


City Councilmember Kriss Worthington moderated most of the event, introducing speakers and making announcements. Council members Jesse Arreguin and Max Anderson were also present, along with four School Board candidates, other sitting members of the Rent Board who are not up for re-election, and other elected officials including EBMUD Board member Andy Katz.