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The McConnell Report • May 1, 2009

Has the Rent Board Gone Too Far?

 

In 1980 when the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Ordinance was first adopted, the rent control agency was a part of the city government. Rent Board Members, like members of virtually every other city commission, were appointed by the City Council and the agency was a department overseen by the City Manager. Then, the annual registration fee was $12 per unit.
 
In the mid 1980’s, Berkeley voters approved a charter amendment to create an elected rent board and give it authority to administer rents in Berkeley. Part of that authority is to hire its own staff, create its own budget, and set fees for the implementation of the law.
 
On April 20, the Berkeley Rent Board is considering an increase in the registration fee charged to owners of residential rental units in the city of Berkeley. Currently, the fee is $170 per unit. The proposed increase would raise that fee by $27 per unit (15.8%) to $197 per unit. Staff says this fee increase is necessary for “cost of living, fringe benefits, and non-personnel costs.”
 
To many, this proposed fee increase seems untimely and irresponsible. It comes at a time when government at every other level in the state of California (as well as private industry) is asking workers to share the pain of the recession that we find ourselves in. It also comes at a time when rents have been declining, vacancies are high, and there appears to be very little demand for program services.
 
Here is my question to the readers of this column? Would you support a ballot initiative that raised the following question?
 
“Whether the voters of the city of Berkeley should repeal Article XVII of the City Charter that created the elected rent board and return the function of appointing members to the Board and administering the regulation of rent in Berkeley to the City Council and City Manager?”
 
I am not asking about changing the law to allow more rent increases, to reduce the fees that are now charged, or to gain some advantage.  The only question is whether the authority to appoint members to the rent board and administer the rent control law should be returned to the city council and city manager. 
 
There are very serious people who have indicated to me that they are ready to proceed, not because they like rent control, but simply because they believe that bringing the law back within the city’s normal structure will create greater accountability, oversight, and more fairness in the administration of the law. They only need to know if rank and file property owners of Berkeley would support the effort. 
 
ARTICLE XVII ELECTED RENT STABILIZATION BOARD
 
(Below, I reprint excerpts of the City Charter and ask whether you want to change it. Follow this link if you want to view the entire Section of the Charter)
 http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=9522
 
Section 120 Purpose of Elected Rent Stabilization Board
 
The purpose of this article is to provide for proper administration of programs to regulate residential rents; to protect tenants from unwarranted rent increases and arbitrary, discriminatory or retaliatory evictions; to help maintain the diversity of the Berkeley community; and to ensure compliance with legal obligations relating to the rental of housing.
 
Question: Has the Elected Board met its purpose to provide for the proper administration of rent control?
 
Section 121 Composition of Rent Board
 
There shall be in the City of Berkeley an elected Rent Stabilization Board. The Board shall consist of nine elected Commissioners. The Board shall elect annually one of its members to serve as Chairperson.
 
Question: If not a single Landlord serves on the Berkeley Rent Board, can it possibly be objective and unbiased?
 
Section 122 Election of Commissioners
 
Commissioners shall be elected at the statewide general election held in November of even numbered years, except as provided by subsection (3) below.
 
(2) Recall.
Commissioners shall be subject to recall as provided in Article IV of this charter.
 
Question: Should we recall Commissioners who vote in favor of a 15.8% increase, or repeal the law?
 
Section 123 Powers and Duties
 
The elected Rent Stabilization Board shall have the power to determine, to arbitrate and to set rent levels, whether through general or individual adjustments, of any unit which has controlled rents under any Berkeley Ordinance, and to administer any Berkeley program which regulates rents and evictions.
 
(1) Replacement of Appointed Board.
The Board provided for in this Article shall, upon taking office, replace and supersede the appointed Board provided in Berkeley Ordinance 5261-N.S. The elected Board shall assume each and every, all and singular, powers, duties, rights and responsibilities of said appointed Board. At such time, said appointed Board shall cease exercising any of the above except to aid in transition as requested by the newly elected Board. At the conclusion of the transitional period (as determined by the elected Board) said appointed Board shall cease to exist as a legal entity.
 
(2) Hiring of Staff.
The Board shall be a working Board and shall employ such staff as may be necessary to perform its functions efficiently and as provided by Berkeley Ordinance. The Board shall have the power to hire and fire staff notwithstanding Article VII, Sections 28(b) and (c) and Article XVI, Section 119 of the City Charter. The City Manager shall continue to provide such supportive services as are appropriate under Berkeley Ordinance. The Board shall follow the City of Berkeley affirmative action employment policy.
 
(3) Financing.
The Board shall finance its reasonable and necessary expenses by charging landlords, annual registration fees in amounts deemed reasonable by the Board. Such registration fees shall not be passed on to tenants in the form of rent increases except with the express prior approval of the Board. The Board is also empowered to request and receive funding, when and if necessary, from the City of Berkeley and/or any other available source for its reasonable and necessary expenses.
 
(4) Additional Powers and Duties.
With the Rent Board's consent, the City Council may assign additional powers and duties to the Rent Board as appropriate. Furthermore, the electorate may give additional powers or duties through initiative ordinance as provided by this Charter.
 
(5) Quorum.
Five (5) Commissioners shall constitute a quorum for the Board. The affirmative vote of five (5) Commissioners of the Board is required for a decision, including all motions, rules, regulations and orders of the Board.
 
Question: Does the City Charter grant too much unchecked and unaccountable power to the Board and Staff?
 
Please let me know whether you would support a measure to repeal the City Charter; send an email to me at gmc@themcconnellgroup.com
 
 
Greg McConnell is the principal consultant at The McConnell Group, a consulting and advocacy firm that specializes in housing issues and advises apartment and housing associations, property management companies, and individual owners throughout California. For more information about The McConnell Group please visit www.themcconnellgroup.com.
 
 
ã This article is copyrighted and cannot be republished without the consent of the author.
 
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