Public Comment

Dazzle Your Rent Board! Avoid Registration! Pretend to be a Co-op!

Carol Denney
Friday December 14, 2018 - 04:05:00 PM

Around thirty years ago a bunch of tenants in my building got tired of the leaky roof, the lack of heat, the cockroaches, the asbestos, paying twice the rent as neighbors in the building with the same size units, enduring violence and favoritism on the property, and organized a rent strike. We paid our rent money into an escrow account instead of to the landlords. It took five years, but the money added up and it worked. I personally painted the hot pink "RENT STRIKE" signs in almost every window. No prospective buyer of the building wanted any part of an ongoing rent strike. With the City of Berkeley's help and a bank loan we bought the building at auction on the courthouse steps and fixed up the property.

We were not rich. We had and still have a variety of languages spoken among the tenancy, which makes working together a little more challenging. But we were up to the challenge. Our plans were outlined in our loan agreement with the City of Berkeley: to form a "limited equity" co-op and govern ourselves. We had the help of management companies in the beginning. We had a Board of Directors twelve strong, open meetings, disagreements to be sure, but enough shared principles and a mandate to keep rents low so that low-income tenants could have stable homes without having to worry about the favoritism, the unsafe conditions, or the inordinate rent increases we'd been putting up with for years.

Almost thirty years later we're still here. But the board is small and secretive. The limited equity co-op has been scrapped, although the Board of Directors instructs the building lawyer to fight against Rent Stabilization Board registration as required by law. The building is divided into "members" and "non-members" who pay different rents and have different rights, even though all tenants are legally part of the nonprofit. It's more like a cult; if you're in, you're in. If you're out you have no heat, bedbugs, pay higher rents, can't get repairs, and are constantly threatened with eviction. Just like before the rent strike.  

The Board of Directors of my building, 1970 San Pablo, some of whom continue to smoke in their units, are about to ask a favor from the Housing Advisory Board according to the minutes of their October 2018. They apparently want either a new loan from the city or a loan modification and mused about how great it would be to get the Housing Advisory Board's affirmation or help in some way, some kind of cheerleading to go with the application. I have no problem with a loan or a loan modification. I wish the City of Berkeley would lean in more, and take our habitability issues more seriously. But I have a problem with misrepresenting the building, which the current Board of Directors continues to mischaracterize as a co-op to the Rent Stabilization Board. We're not a co-op. We are renters. 

I'm not the only tenant tired of being repeatedly threatened with eviction for reporting obvious habitability issues or who is afraid to report them in the first place, like having no heat (my unit, six months this year), having bedbugs (my unit, six months this year) and the continued smoking in units on the property. We have children here getting exposed every day of their lives, just like the rest of us. Only a rarefied few are allowed to vote for the board, which once was twelve tenants and now is reduced to around five people. The board itself selects the nominees, controls the tenant selections and evictions, etc., often sliding their friends to the head of the line for available housing. The board is thoroughly dominated by one or two people, some of whom don't live on the property, who populate it with inexperienced tenants who have little idea what's going on. We have a lot of work to do to restore the large, representative board we once had to any kind of literal or administrative health. 

In our building you get threatened for bringing up unfair conditions - or bought out. I remember when I came to a board meeting and asked how it was that some units had two and even three parking spaces in the garage while others had to park on the street and get their cars broken into all the time. I had a parking space the very next day. But the more systemic fix I wanted never showed up; the rules only apply to some people. 

I have a petition before the Rent Stabilization Board to get some units in the building registered which I submitted last spring. I pointed out that our building has non-member units on the property which pre-date the nonprofit entity we formed years ago. Under Berkeley's ordinance those non-member units need to be registered with the Rent Stabilization Board. The board members, along with the building's lawyer William Segesta, is fighting against registering those pre-nonprofit units in the building even though they acknowledge in their meeting minutes that all of the tenants are simply renters and are not a co-op of any kind as we were in the past. Apparently they got rid of the limited equity co-op long ago, which means that all the units need to be registered. I sent a copy of those minutes to the Rent Board but it probably won't be allowed to be part of my case because the case is in the appeal stage, so I'll have to do it all over again. I will, but it will take months.

It's hard to tell if anybody at the Rent Stabilization Board is listening. Our whole building, all the units, should be registered under the Rent Stabilization Board ordinance, since no co-op exemption applies, we're just renters, and the building is old enough to qualify. We were a limited equity co-op years ago when I was on the board; incoming tenants either paid or paid over time into a $2,000 equity share in the property. This was part of our original loan agreement with the City of Berkeley. I'm not sure why a subsequent board ditched it, or when. But ditching the limited equity co-op should have ditched the dubious "limited equity co-op" exemption. The Rent Stabilization Board apparently has allowed our building's "co-op" exemption to continue to just sit there unexamined for years, and the Board of Directors is fighting any correction to their non-co-op status, even though their non-co-op status is obvious from their tax documents which, as a non-profit, are public.

The "limited equity co-op" exception is a dubious registration exemption in the first place; wealthy people who buy a building together, the conventional co-op model, have little in common with poor tenants who band together in a rent strike (in our case) to arrange to own limited shares of a building together with a bank loan. I'm not passing judgment on either model; I'm just saying wealthy co-owners of property have no trouble hiring lawyers if they need them, or finding resources if they have to or if they want to move. We, on the other hand, are forced to pay the salary of the same building lawyer who sends us eviction threats for reporting habitability issues as well as trying to find and pay for a lawyer to fight for our rights. Which is not what the voters of Berkeley intended when they passed the Rent Stabilization Board ordinance. It's a recipe for eviction; at least three people homeless on Berkeley's streets today are former tenants. 

The applicability of the "limited equity co-op" for an exemption doesn't require a new charter amendment to change. It just requires the Rent Stabilization Board or the City Council or both to take a look and recognize that a co-op, under the law, is a wildly different legal entity. But I haven't been able to interest them. It makes sense to have co-ops hire their own lawyers and have their own court fights; apparently there are plenty. But poor people, like our low-income tenants, don't have the same options, and need resources to protect their rights. 

Our building's board meeting minutes are a carefully guarded secret, as are the board meetings, the records, etc. You can get threatened for simply attempting to attend. Only months afterward do the minutes show up on a rain-soaked bulletin board, so there's no chance of knowing what's up until it hits you. 

But we didn't plan it that way. We began as a relatively united group that worked relatively well on co-operative projects. And I'm sure we can again, once we can all vote, boot the secrecy, prejudice, and fraud, and embrace a little sunshine. Those of us who believe in tenants' rights and preserving low-income housing options have everything in common. Our desperation may have played a role in our unity decades ago. Our sense of justice will be what brings us together today so that our building, hopefully for another thirty years, can remain an inspiration to others organizing for housing justice.