Two slates fight for seats on Berkeley’s Rent Board

The four candidates of the Tenant Convention Slate (left to right): Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Igor Tregub, Judy Shelton and Asa Dodsworth

The four candidates for the Tenants United for Fairness Slate (left to right): Nicole Drake, Judy Hunt, Jay James, and Kiran Shenoy

A June 2012 grand jury report that slams the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is at the center of the two-slate race for four seats on the board that oversees the city’s rent control law.

Berkeley Tenants United for Fairness, TUFF,  joined forces over support for the report’s conclusions  that the board “lacks oversight and accountability,” and that it’s up to Berkeley voters to “change the direction of the BRSB.”

The Tenant Convention Slate, TCS, chosen by a nominating convention in July, blasts the report, saying it “relies on inaccuracies, half-truths and innuendo,” and is based on policy concerns rather than evaluating the board’s implementation of the rent control law.

TUFF candidates are Nicole Drake, incumbent and aide to Councilmember Linda Maio, Judy Hunt, nonprofit executive, Jay James, mechanical engineer and Kiran Shenoy, attorney and police review commissioner.

Three incumbents and one new candidate make up the Tenants Convention Slate. Incumbents are: Igor Tregub, mechanical engineer and Berkeley housing commissioner; Judy Shelton, artist, and Asa Dodsworth, former commissioner on the zero waste board. Candidate Alejandro Soto-Vigil is aide to Council member Kriss Worthington and vice chair of the Berkeley Housing Commission.

The five rent board members whose terms end in 2014 are allied with the TCS.

At issue: director’s salary

One of the issues examined by the grand jury is the rent board director’s $183,000 salary.

TUFF candidate Jay James, who lives in a rent controlled apartment and owns minority shares in rental properties, said he was particularly irked when he learned the director’s salary was so high. He agreed with the grand jury finding that the salary was too high, when compared to several city department heads who earned salaries in the same range, but managed larger staffs and had larger budgets.

The director’s salary “seems like a clear symptom of the problem described in the grand jury report,” James told Berkeleyside, explaining that he was running for the seat to fulfill a “civic duty.”

The Tenant Convention Slate supports the September 21 rent board response to the report. On the issue of director salary, they argue that the city’s human resources department, not the rent board commissioners, sets compensation and that the rent board director’s salary is within the range of salaries of city of Berkeley managers with similar responsibilities and expertise, and also similar to managers of rent control programs in cities with similar rent control laws.

Nonetheless, TCS candidate Alejandro Soto-Vigil says his slate agrees that the director’s salary is too high, just as they believe the salaries of many of the city’s department heads are also too high.

“We should not be giving exorbitant salaries to executives,” Soto-Vigil said.

In the response to the grand jury report, the board said it would review the salary when renewing the director’s contract.

James credits pressure by TUFF for the board’s willingness to take another look at the salary.
“Actually, because of our slate running, you can see the incumbents on the other slate are changing their tone, saying, ‘O yeah, now it’s too high,’” he said.

Diminished workload

The focus of the Rent Board race is a damning Grand Jury report on how the board operates. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Another issue that separates the slates is TUFF’s contention that the board maintains a high registration fee ($194 per unit), while the work load has diminished: state law has restricted the number of units under rent control.

James contends that not only does the board have less work to do than in the past, but that it spends too much time on inconsequential issues, such as taking a position on non-rent control issues, such as its support for Berkeley Measures N and O (swimming pools) and, he said, spending time “highlighting the attendance of rent board commissioners.”

TCS incumbent Igor Tregub said the rent board taking a position on citywide business is similar to the city council taking positions on state or national issues and serves to make the public aware of connections between housing and other issues.

Tregub defended the time the board took to craft new rules on commissioner absences after Commissioner Nicole Drake — running for re-election on the TUFF slate — had multiple absences from commission and committee meetings.

Drake said many of her absences were due to medical necessity and exigencies of her day job at City Hall and argued that the board targeted her absences in retribution for her support for the grand jury report.

On the allegation that the board’s work load has diminished, Tregub acknowledged that there are fewer units under rent control, but he says the board’s work has increased due to the economic downturn. There have been more tenants and small landlords seeking help due to foreclosures, he said.

Who is served?

The board is tasked to serve both tenants and landlords, but James contends, “Landlords are underserved under the current board.”

But in a recent Daily Cal op-ed, Tregub argues, “The board is equitable to both landlords and tenants. Small landlords, in particular, are viewed as a special type of property owner that merits particular assistance. The board regularly provides workshops tailored to their needs and keeps a lawyer at the front desk to answer technical questions.”

Tregub says TUFF supports landlords and points to Berkeley Property Owners Association president, Sid Lakireddy, who called on its membership to support the slate: “I urge you, I plead with you, please go to www.Berkeleytuff.org and donate what you can to each individual candidate,” he wrote. “This is the best chance we have to change things and they need your help!”

Visit Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board website for more information on the board and its organization.

Related:
Grand Jury criticizes Berkeley rent stabilization board [06.26.12]
Rent board makes minor changes after critical report [09.11.12]

Visit Berkeleyside’s Voter’s Edge Berkeley for complete coverage and tracking of the city’s 10 ballot measures. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to Nov. 6.

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  • SketchyJesse

    Then why did the Rent Board allow Steve Barton to double dip as it relates to PERS? This cost property owners and tax payers tens and tens of thousands of dollars!! Unacceptable!

  • Charles_Siegel

    And even units that seem pricey today may seem reasonably priced when compared with the market rate 40 years from now (even after correcting for inflation).  I think you will find that is true if you compare housing costs today and 40 years ago. 

    So, the benefit is the same as it always was: to prevent people from being displaced from their homes because market prices in the neighborhood increase more rapidly than they can keep up with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesselarreguin Jesse Arreguin

    Because Ms. Drake told me

  • Guest

    Did Steve Barton tell you too? You’re a joke!

  • Guest

    You should really stay out of this! You and the slate you are supporting are disgraceful for going after these records to unseat someone who was elected. If we, the people, wanted her out of office, we had that option. I don’t consider a letter by the less than professional Patti Dacey to speak to anyone outside of your cicle of freaks! I started watching rent board meetings after the grand jury report and what Commissioner Drake was asking for was a dollar break down of how money is being spent. Follow the dollars and you’ll see they are being spent disproportionately on salaries, not services for landlords and tenants. Your attempt to smear her, the grand jury’s findings, and TUFF merely shows how weak and scared you are Councilmember. You and the joke opposition slate have made this personal and we won’t forget as distinct 4 voters. I was at an endorsement meeting where she explained the grave concerns she had with the illegitimate convention process. Everyone knows this is your and Kriss’s lame attempt to control who gets elected to the rent board. You can’t have anyone on the board challenge jay and the empire he’s built. Well, Councilmember, it’s time for change!

    Berkeley….it’s time for the Kriss and Jesse show to end! Basta!

  • Guest

    You got involved because you couldn’t follow the rules. Lame! How exactly was stemming the tide of developer dollars with the progressives you met going to help you right your wrongs? I shudder to see your analysis on the dias!

  • Guest

    Ummm… Asa, tenants rights are and rent control is NOT under attack. It seems as if you and your slate don’t understand the Grand Jury’s recommendations. Oh wait…you essentially brushed them off! You are doing a disservice to tenants and landlords. Luckily, Berkeley has an alternate slate this time around!

    Vote Berkeley TUFF

  • Howie Mencken

    Charles, I agree existing tenants should be protected. But my question remains:

    Once tenants have voluntarily left (or died):

    - The rent on that unit is raised to whatever the market will bear.

    - The unit is leased to the most affluent class of renters – those who can pay prevailing rates in an extremely tight and pricey market.

    Why does that unit stay under control? And for whose (or what) benefit?

  • Howie Mencken

    Asa, are you there?

  • Hilldah

    If you don’t know why she was absent, please don’t comment.  Unless of course you think that people with disabilities don’t belong on the Rent Board.

  • Hilldah

    Are you saying that people with disabilities should not be allowed on commissions?  The salary of the director is most definitely the function of the Rent Board.

  • Hilldah

    It is important that homeowner with rentals familiarize themselves with the “Searle Decision”.

  • Hilldah

    Where are the vacancy rate assessments, Igor?  Many have asked for these figures but your board and director don’t seem to want to provide them.  Could it be that the vacancy figures are lower than the threshold necessary to keep the Rent Board on board (pun intended)?  The City has a housing authority than can easily address the needs of tenants.  Time to close up shop.

  • Hilldah

    Truth be told, many renters that have rent control units, sub-let them.  Since many of them are over 62 they cannot be forced out even if their incomes are on high end.  I know of at least 2 neighbors that were able to travel abroad because they sub let their units at market rates.  The rent board wants to ignore these issues altogether because they may benefit the landlord.

  • Hilldah

    Are your units under rent control?

  • hilldah

    And the board in their wisdom, lead by the over paid director, continually refuse to provide a true assessment of available units.

  • hilldah

    It is inappropriate and unprofessional for a Councilmember to make the comments you are making. If you have a personal vendetta against Ms. Drake, this is not the forum in which to vent.  Your biggest problem is your association with your mentor Kriss.  You need to live up to your potential and not allow others to manipulate you.

  • hilldah

    City employees that work full time Mr. Townley, get benefits.  I had not idea that Rent Board members worked full time at their Commissioners position.  What is it you earn as a Commissioner?  $500 per meeting?  Maybe I am wrong about your earnings.  Personally I don’t think that RB Commissioners should earn a salary plus, they don’t work any harder than most other volunteer Commissioners.

  • Howie Mencken

    Rather than let this item will slip off the first page of Berkeleyside’s ‘all the news’ without more satisfying answers to my questions, I’ll try myself…

    The questions were: Under the current law, once tenants have voluntarily left (or died), the rent on that unit is raised to whatever the market will bear. The unit is then leased to the most affluent class of renters – those who can pay prevailing rates in an extremely tight and pricey market.

    Why does that unit stay under control? And for whose (or what) benefit?…

    Once vacated, rent control of that unit has served its central purpose: The previous tenants have been protected from de facto eviction through rent increases. As the ordinance has no control over the new rate, the rent could even double, depending on how long the unit was controlled… 

    The landlord re-rents the unit to tenants who prove through their application that they have the financial strength to carry the rent (e.g.: rent as a percentage of income, etc.) This is exactly what landlords do in uncontrolled units. THEN THE NEXT YEAR the same tenants who were fully capable of paying market rent twelve months ago, get a rent increase designed by the rent board to protect fixed income seniors.

    WHY? Because, even though vacancy decontrol (google Costa-Hawkins), has ended that unit’s economic protections for those whom the ordinance was enacted, it’s remains under the rent board jurisdiction to prevent the rent board from losing the income to sustain itself. Next election we need a ballot measure which removes units from the boards control as they come to current market rent. That will allow a reasonable period of time to retire the ordinance, having served its useful purpose.

    As far as retiring the ordinance and the other “consulting” services the rent board offers: Re-scaling staff to reflect the constantly decreasing number of tenants for whom free legal advice is actually needed, will allow them to continue.

     

    Right?

  • Charles_Siegel

     I suspect that is illegal. Maybe some expert on rent control can confirm.

    Truth be told, rent control is a blunt instrument.  I myself knew someone who kept a rent-controlled apartment while buying a house in another city without rent control, which he rented out and kept as an investment.  (He later lost that investment to foreclosure.)

    But for every anecdote about people who have abused or profited from rent control, there are many anecdotes about families who are just barely able to pay their rent and about elderly people who would lose the apartments where they have lived all their lives if it were not for rent control. 

    Though it is a blunt instrument, rent control is the best we can do on the municipal level.  It would be much better to have national policies to reduce income inequality and encourage housing production, so people at all income levels can afford housing.  When that happens, I will support an end to rent control.

  • EBGuy

     I am sympathetic to the fact that market rate rents are set by a mix of rent controlled and non-rent controlled units, so the rent controlled units have an extra expense.  Boo-hoo.  This was known at the time of purchase.  And if it wasn’t, well, Prop 13.  Boo-hoo.  If I understand rent seeking economics correctly, I believe there is a tenant that brings a pile of cash to the transaction from which expenses are deducted.

  • guest

    The current Rent Board (save Drake) want more registered rentals so that they can increase the #s, both to raise more money for lobbyists, and to post more vacancies so that they can keep their positions.

  • guest

    The City just recently evaluated the City Manager when they moved her from being Acting CM to CM.  Get your facts straight. 

  • anon

    I’m saying that if the nature of someone’s disability keeps them from showing up for their job, then perhaps they should consider a different job.
    If I had a disability that made it difficult for me to walk or carry plates: I wouldn’t look for a job as a waitress at a busy restaurant.

  • Jasper

    For me the Dodsworth house is a classic example of the behavior of certain people who abuse the tolerant climate in Berkeley. In order for tolerant societies to work people must be more responsible not less. If we all just constantly take advantage of the tolerance by insisting on our “personal” right to do as we please the whole thing fails. 

  • Charles_Siegel

     Reread my comment immediately that you are responding to.  You will see that I already answered.

  • Christy M

    Based on everything I’ve read here, I’m voting for: Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Judy Shelton, Asa Dodsworth, Igor Tregub.

  • anonymous

     Those NYC rent-controlled apartments were not needs based.