Six candidates are vying for four open seats on Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board, in a race that has seen one slate of decidedly pro-tenant candidates boast numerous endorsements and a large war chest, while their landlord-leaning opponents lag — both in terms of endorsements and cash.
It’s an important, if not widely covered race: Established in 1980, the Rent Board controls a $4.5 million budget, and is composed of nine elected commissioners, which each draw a monthly salary of between $50 and $500. The Board is responsible for the day to day oversight and management of the city’s rent control ordinance, and moreover, those elected this election cycle will likely have a substantial influence the appointment of a new executive director, among other policy initiatives.
One of the four members of the tenant-leaning, self-dubbed CALI ticket — an acronym made from the first names of the candidates — is an incumbent, Alejandro Soto-Vigil. The others, Igor Tregub, Leah Simon-Weisberg and Christina Murphy, are newcomers, though not to housing as an issue. Simon-Weisberg helped write two other rent control measures on the ballot in the Bay Area, Murphy has been involved in South Berkeley community housing for years, and former Rent Board Commissioner Tregub is on the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board.
On the other side, Nate Wollman and incumbent Judy Hunt have adopted Fairness Accountability Integrity and Respect (FAIR) to describe their bid. Wollman is a property manager, who says that his experience in the industry gives him an edge over “career political candidates who are vetting for any positions they can get their hands on.” And for her part Hunt, an incumbent, touts her experience helming a non-profit and small property owner.
Of the ballot measures that are on the table, The CALI bloc is in favor of Measure U1 — in opposition to the competing DD, which is backed by landlords, they say. The logic is simple Soto-Vigil said at a recent candidate panel: after crunching the numbers U1 would create eight new affordable units a year, whereas DD would generate three.
Both Hunt and Wollman supported Measure DD, the competing measure backed by landlords. Hunt called Measure U1 deceptive, referring to a court challenge, and praised the citizen advisory panel proposed by Measure DD.
On Measure AA, which seeks to increase the required payout for an owner move-in, and prevent such move-ins during the school year for families with children, the candidates were also split. The CALI ticket supports the measure. The FAIR ticket opposes the measure because, as Wollman put it, “If it’s your house, you should be able to move home.”
Political scientist: Voters rely more on group attachments than policy positions
But despite public panels and lively discussion over policy, counter-intuitively, candidates’ actual policy positions are not what most voters base a decision on. According to San Francisco State University professor of political science Jason McDaniel, despite the focus on policy issues in campaign materials and public forums, most voters actually use another calculus to determine a person’s vote: group attachments.
Group attachments, McDaniel says, are social criteria such as ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation. Voters pick up on those factors as a kind of code for the candidate’s perceived ideology — renters, for example, being perceived as more favorable on renter issues. Endorsements are included, he says.
“I don’t think candidates are necessarily aware,” McDaniel told Berkeleyside in a phone interview. “They would probably be surprised how little their messaging content influences voters.”
The self-titled “CALI Slate” has more than 40 endorsements listed on its website, ranging from a BART Board Director, several Berkeley elected officials, and a swath of organizations associated with tenant and labor issues. And the coalition has also trumpeted a nod from Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). Berkeleyside was not able to reach Sanders for comment.
City councilman and candidate for mayor Jesse Arreguín told Berkeleyside that the CALI slate was, “the most qualified to serve on the Rent Stabilization Board. Each brings many years of experience not only serving tenants but also working on rent control policy.”
Councilman Max Anderson echoed Arreguin’s sentiment — that the CALI ticket has experience with administrating the Board with tenants and landlords in mind.
Though not listed on the CALI ticket website, Councilman Darryl Moore told Berkeleyside he is endorsing Murphy. “She seems like a very good advocate for the people she works with … with homeless, with people who have trouble finding housing in Berkeley.”
Moore also says he is backing Tregub because he did well during his prior stint on the board.
On the FAIR ticket, Moore is backing Hunt because he’s liked her work on the Rent Board in the past, and says that diversity and experience as a small property owner are important.
The FAIR ticket of Hunt and Wollman lists just over 10 endorsements on its campaign site, including endorsements from three sitting City Council members: Moore, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf and Councilman Laurie Capitelli. FAIR is also endorsed by the Berkeley Democratic Club. (As noted above, Moore is only endorsing one member of that slate.)
Wengraf supports both Hunt and Wollman but says that she endorses people, not tickets.
Unlike some of the other contests that have seen, for example, national real estate interests backing candidates with tens of thousands of dollars in soft money, the race for the rent board has been a relatively inexpensive one. Thus far, no interest groups have filed documents with the city declaring cash support for any candidate vying for a rent board seat.
This is in sharp contrast to 2012 when landlord-backed groups spent $42,500 to mail out five campaign flyers in support of a slate of candidates.
As a result, it’s been a relatively inexpensive race: the self-proclaimed progressive bloc has raised the largest combined war chest of $15,090, according to campaign documents filed with the city. Their opponents Hunt and Wollman have raised a combined total of $4,925. Murphy and Simon-Weisberg, from the progressive bloc, have been spending the most aggressively with about $2,400 each, according to filings that cover activities through Sept. 24.
But, even though the war chests are small, the race is not without mudslinging.
Wollman took issue with the progressive block using berkeleyrentboard.org as its campaign web address, telling Berkeleyside that it unfairly made it appear as though the group was some kind of official city-backed group. And he openly speculated on the tactics used by the progressive bloc to gain the much-trumpeted endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
In a telephone interview, Soto-Vigil cast a shadow over Capitelli’s endorsement of Hunt and Wollman, suggesting the now-mayoral candidate had said years ago he favored abolishing rent control.
Capitelli said — after publication — he has never been in favor of abolishing rent control.
“20 years ago…with Steve Barton (Berkeley’s former housing director), we mused about the idea of a means-tested rent control program,” said Capitelli. “We tried but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I never supported the abolition of rent control.”
Capitelli has said he favors amending the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which exempts buildings constructed after 1980 from rent control. It also allows landlords to raise rents to the market rate on rent-controlled units once tenants move out. Arreguín has said he wants to repeal Costa-Hawkins. It would take a vote of the legislature to do that.
Update, Oct. 24: This article has been updated to include a statement from Capitelli in which he says, contrary to Soto-Vigil’s assertion, he never favored abolishing rent control.
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