Opinion: The rent board needs accountability and leadership

The current commission is really a tenant board, which vilifies property owners, especially landlords

On May 7 this year, I attended the Rent Stabilization Board special meeting where ugly remarks were made when eight of the nine Commissioners were present: Chang, Poblet, Laverde, Murphy, Selawsky, Simon-Weisberg, Soto-Vigil and Tregub. Commissioner Jesse Townley was absent.

During the special meeting I watched and listened to the following from the commissioners: a lot of landlord bashing, grandstanding in the form of who can hurl the most disdainful sound bite, tremendous vitriol toward property owners, a lack of civility and courtesy among commissioners and disrespect for Berkeley citizens, both property owners and tenants. Accountability was missing during all the missile-flying.

The lack of transparency and honest information breeds distrust in our community. Public officials, whether elected or appointed, should demonstrate character, ethics, integrity, fairness, and doing what is best for the community-at-large.

Here’s what Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg said during the meeting: “If people are buying property they can’t afford because they need to suppress other people, it’s like ‘I can build this widget as long as I use slaves to do it.’ If you buy a plantation and it requires slavery, yeah it sucks when we finally outlaw it. But if your business model is based on suppressing other people, then we’re done.’ First off, it’s not their (golden duplex owner) home. The unit the tenant is living in is the tenant’s unit.”

(The entire meeting can be viewed here.)

How is the commissioner’s soliloquy any different from a person who says:

  1. “Mexico sends us their murderers, rapists, drug dealers who bring crime into our country”.
  2. “I’m calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
  3. “We don’t need people coming into our country from those shithole countries like Africa and Haiti.”

To even hint or infer that property owners are slave owners insults everyone – American Indians, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, African Americans, European Americans, Jewish Americans and Latino Americans – property owners across the nation, state, county and city.

Owning property is not a criminal offense in the United States of America. In fact, the chairman of the commission, the agency director and legal counsel own property. I seriously doubt people buy property to “suppress” others.

Tenants are not slaves. To even utter such language is beyond comprehension. To portray tenants as slaves is appallingly disrespectful. Simon-Weisberg is a practicing attorney, and it is inconceivable that she did not utilize factual evidence based in logic and truth tempered with empathy and reality.

The most disturbing part of the monologue was the verbal aggression that spewed resentment in a public forum that should be about solving complex problems without malicious attacks, and stirring up potential violence toward property owners. Our children and youth see and hear what we adults, say and do. Our behavior and actions clearly convey our values and beliefs.

I am most disturbed by the total absence of moral fiber and courage by the remaining seven commissioners. Not one commissioner had the guts to call this person out on such reprehensible behavior. So the silence revealed agreeement with the monologue. Corrosive speech and silent agreement erodes civility, decency and respect for our neighbors.

The executive staff never reminded commissioners to refrain from language that disparages, alienates, disrespects or maligns any group of Berkeley residents.

I now call upon the rent board commissioners to take constructive action.

  • Commissioner Simon-Weisberg should resign for conduct unbecoming a public official. Words and actions have impact and consequences. Voters also have the responsibility to not re-elect someone who alienates virtually everyone. Public officials are expected to demonstrate sound judgement, equanimity and respect for all citizens regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic status or political positions.
  • The current commission is really a tenant board, which vilifies property owners, especially landlords. The commissioners should stop taking the $500 monthly stipend and benefits since they see property owners as demonic. The stipends are property owners’ – specifically landlord – monies. Those monies should be utilized to establish a legal fund for indigent landlords. All property owners are not millionaires and many older adult property owners do not have lots of money, nor should they be coldly told: “You can sell your property or tap into your equity to hire a lawyer.” Equity is not liquidity like a cash machine withdrawal from a savings or checking account.
  • This commission needs training and a review of the Commissioners Manual regarding commissioner conduct and the Rent Board policy regarding commissioner communications and conduct during meetings.
  • The commission needs to make informed and evidence based-decisions to stabilize rents and build more affordable housing, not just emotional sound bites and sensationalism to whip up the base.
  • Commissioners need to work in collaboration with the Housing Advisory Commission, Zoning Adjustment Board, Planning Commission and City Council to build more housing that is affordable. Not just in Districts 1, 2 and 3; but in 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 – inclusion across the city. We all need to move past NIMBY mentality. Designating some districts to build affordable housing and others not, is still exclusion and discrimination based on socio-economic class and inherent bias about who deserves to live where.
  • Establish tenant cooperative housing. Rent board commissioners should obtain an affordable residential building, develop rental agreements and manage the maintenance of the property to ensure safe and habitable living conditions. Tenant cooperative housing in Berkeley is a solution that can become an alternative model of how to provide housing to tenants of various ethnicities and incomes.

“Berkeley stands UNITED against hate” is displayed in residential and business windows throughout our city.  It’s time to stop the vicious name calling, insulting imagery and duplicity just to get votes. We all deserve better leadership.

Judy Hunt is a former Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner, and she now sits on the Board of Library Trustees.