Public Comment

Remarks for the Tenants' Union Convention

Thomas Lord
Friday April 22, 2016 - 04:55:00 PM

The Berkeley Tenants' Union Convention will take place this Sunday, April 24, 1:30 to 4:30pm, at the South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis St. Berkeley, California 94703.

Berkeley residents are eligible to vote if they are in the door by 2pm. A sliding scale donation is requested to offset the costs of the event but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

I live in a rent controlled apartment on a block that is almost entirely rent controlled apartments. My neighbors are ethnically, economically, and in many other ways diverse. Some are recent arrivals, and some are people who have been here for decades. I've been at this particular spot in Berkeley for almost 9 years now, watching kids grow up, families expand, students come and go. You can bet your life that I'm going to fight for tenants' rights and for affordable rentals just as hard as anyone.

I have some real disagreements with the front runners for this slate. I think the front runners for this slate represent more of the same for renters. They stand for a continuation of the same policies that have been failing Berkeley renters for 20 years. 

Strong rent control was established in Berkeley in 1980, after a decade of struggle. The struggle was sometimes radical, even including rent strikes. In 1980 the rent control ordinance we have today finally passed. For 16 years, until 1996, it worked pretty well. If you could afford to rent in Berkeley one year you could almost certainly afford it the next year. If you had to move out of a place the odds were you could find another. More units were needed, especially as Cal grew, but progressives never got a chance to work on that problem. 

As many of you know, in 1995 the state legislature passed a law called Costa Hawkins. In 1996 that law started to go into effect. Ever since then the price of apartments in Berkeley spiraled up. 

Costa Hawkins has been destroying rental affordability in Berkeley for 20 years. 

For 20 years what has the City of Berkeley done about Costa Hawkins? What has the rent board done? What have the housing activists done? What about these progressive clubs that endorse this slate? 

Two things. 

(1) They wrote some letters. 

(2) This year they propose a regressive tax. 

Does that sound progressive to you? 20 years of asking the legislature to pretty please change its mind? And now a regressive tax? 

Every few years the activists get the City to send another letter to the state legislature. Costa Hawkins repeal attempts die in committee in Sacramento, they don't even get to a vote. Twice now the legislature has cobbled up enough votes to make very minor changes to Costa Hawkins. They both failed. What did the City of Berkeley do about it? Write another letter. 

This November on the ballot there's gonna be a vote for a tax on rents. It's probably going to pass. What this means on my street, is that the landlords' costs are going to go up on almost every single unit. The official story of this tax is that landlords just won't be able to “pass it through” the tax. Well that's nonsense. In the long run landlords have lots of ways to pass through a tax and renters have few ways to resist. 

What are we going to do about this? What can we do about this? 

1. I'm calling for the formation of the Rent Board Committee for Housing Affordability which is where the rent board can do the research, consult with experts, and talk with the public to agree on better solutions than writing more letters. 

2. Berkeley has recently made it easier for homeowners to increase density and create new housing units by building accessory units – in-law apartments on their property. The Rent Board needs an urgent program to make it attractive to those homeowners to voluntarily bring those units on the market under terms similar to 1980 rent control. The question is what incentives the Rent Board can offer. 

3. Berkeley ought to be following the example of Vancouver, British Columbia. The housing affordability problems in Vancouver exceed even those of San Francisco. Yet Vancouver does a much better job than Berkeley or any Bay Area city of making below-market housing available, not only to people with very low incomes but to people in the middle. How are they doing this? For one thing Vancouver puts some of their publicly owned units and social housing units on the market at market rates. For those units, it's not a 1 or 2 or 3 percent tax on rent windfalls. It's 100% of the windfall from highly priced market rate apartments that goes to create affordable housing. Vancouver has also been successful at attracting private investment to build publicly owned and social housing. Best of all, over a couple of decades Vancouver figured out how to double its housing stock, greatly increasing density, without sacrificing its historic architectural character