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Two Teenagers Nominated For City’s Rent Board

Tuesday June 15, 2004

Youth was served Sunday when progressives nominated their slate of four candidates for the Rent Stabilization Board who promise to keep the board decidedly pro-tenant and a spring board for politically active UC students. 

Two 19-year-old students, Jesse Arreguin and Jason Overman were nominated, along with incumbent Eleanor Walden and retired attorney Jack Harrison. 

The four are almost certain to win election to the nine-member board, which holds staggered elections every two years. Landlords have not run candidates since they were swept in 1998. 

Commissioners Paul Hogarth and Judy Ann Alberti opted not to run for a second term, and Chairperson Max Anderson is prohibited from seeking a third term. Rent Board Commissioners receive stipends of $6,000 per year. 

The victors were among five candidates that sought the nomination to oversee the city’s 500-page rent control ordinance, manage the board’s $3 million budget, and act as an appeals court in tenant/landlord disputes.  

Joe Crowder, a former candidate for City Council and mayor, came up 18 votes shy of winning the final slot. 

While the rent board is firmly under the control of pro-tenant advocates, its power has been curtailed in recent years. In 1995, the state Legislature passed the Costa-Hawkins Act that ended rent control on vacant units and single-family dwellings. Since the law went into effect, 61 percent of Berkeley rental units have turned over and have experienced market rate rent increases.  

Also, if voters approve this November, the board will no longer set annual rent increases. A settlement reached earlier this year to a lawsuit filed by the Berkeley Property Owners Association would fix rate increases at 65 percent of the Consumer Price Index. 

Despite reduced clout, the nominees outlined agendas to expand the board’s purview.  

Walden said her biggest priority would be to campaign for an item on the November ballot that would extend rent control to federally subsidized Section 8 housing units in cases when the landlord raised rents, forcing tenants to pay more than 30 percent of their income. 

Citing concerns over the habitability of apartment units, Harrison called for the board to organize tenant complaints so residents in substandard housing could win rent reductions. “It would be a short-term improvement to get places fixed up,” he said. 

Arreguin, the ASUC Housing Director, said he would push to further tenant outreach and rebuild the tenants union, which emerged in the 1970s to press for rent control and was eventually disbanded after voters passed the ordinance in 1979. Despite a more favorable rental market in recent years, Arreguin said he has heard from numerous UC students that unjust evictions, uninhabitable apartments, and unaffordable rents remain a problem in Berkeley. 

Overman, who bested Arreguin by one vote at a student nominating convention last month and was nominated by acclamation Sunday, also backed efforts to better educate and organize tenants and urged the rent board organize a campaign to overturn Costa-Hawkins. 

“Students don’t know what rent control is,” he said.  

With landlords now free to charge market rates for vacant units, the primary benefactors of rent control are long-term Berkeley tenants. 

Arreguin and Overman—the latest in a long line of student advocates to seek a seat on the rent board—are products of an improved Berkeley rental market that has produced little outward protest from students in recent years.  

In contrast, commissioners and recent UC Graduates Howard Chong and Paul Hogarth both made headlines long before they were voted to the board, leading student protests during the housing crisis, when tenants complained that landlords were evicting tenants en masse so they could capitalize on market rate rent hikes. 

In addressing the convention Sunday, Hogarth said rent control was “the only thing keeping Berkeley from being another bland, boring suburb,” and referred to some landlords as “salivating to get rid of long-term tenants.” 

Hogarth said the pro-tenant majority is pushing the City Council to provide more money for tenants forced from their homes by a state law that allows owners to vacate the rental business and has secured services to renters including counseling services, a lobbyist in Sacramento, and direct grants to non-profits that serve low-income tenants. 

How the rent board spends its money—which comes from landlord fees—is a major source of irritation to the Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA). While the number of appellate decisions made by the rent board declined from 280 in 2001 to 216 in 2003, landlord fees rose eight percent last year. 

“Paying for this bureaucracy is a joke,” said BPOA President Michael Wilson. “They refuse to come to grips with the fact that instead of spending $3 million on a program that is less and less important, the money should go directly towards needy tenants.” 

So does Wilson plan on running a landlord slate to regain a foothold on the board for the first time since 1998? 

“People would rather have their fingernails pulled off with rusty pliers than sit through those meetings,” he said. “The answer is no.”