Berkeley’s Pro-Tenant Rent Board

What happens when a city elects its rent guidelines board?

In Berkeley, California, it means that a pro-tenant slate won all six seats on the city’s Rent Stabilization Board this month, easily outrunning their three rivals.

The six—five incumbents and one new member—were nominated at the Berkeley Tenants Convention, a gathering of more than 100 people in late July, after 12 potential candidates had been interviewed by a coalition of local liberal and leftist groups. They each garnered more than 10,700 votes; their top rival got about 6,800.

“The point of the slate is unity among tenants and tenant-friendly property owners,” says Jesse Townley, a punk-rock record-company manager who was the top vote-getter. The slate included two tenants, one homeowner, and three small landlords.

This coalition, says Townley, was needed to overcome “the super-anti-rent-control property owners, organized by the Berkeley Property Owners Association.” When the BPOA’s pro-landlord slates won a majority for a few years in the mid-1990s, he says, “rents went up 45 percent during that time under rent control. They basically did everything they could to raise rents as much as they could while staying within the letter of the law.”

The main opposition candidate, George Perezvelez, “ran as neither pro-tenant nor pro-landlord, whatever that means,” says Townley. Perezvelez was endorsed by Mayor Tom Bates and six members of the City Council. Tenant activists believe he was encouraged to run “to drive a wedge into the slate process,” Townley adds.

California law bans cities from limiting rents on vacant apartments, but it lets them reregulate the new tenant’s rent. As Berkeley, a city of 100,000 that’s home to the University of California’s flagship campus, has gentrified significantly, market rents are dramatically higher than regulated rents. However, city residents voted in 2004 to limit annual rent increases to 65 percent of the increase in the federal consumer price index for the San Francisco Bay Area. Thus, the maximum increase for tenants renewing their leases in 2011 will be 0.7 percent.

The board also adjudicates landlord-tenant disputes and works on code enforcement, such as requiring buildings to be earthquake-proofed.