The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board on Monday appointed a well-known tenants’ advocate to replace Commissioner Katherine Harr, who stepped down Jan. 31 for health reasons.
Marìa Poblet, who most recently was the executive director of Causa Justa: Just Cause, a regional housing and immigrant rights organization, will serve until Nov. 20, 2018, and then will have to run for election if she wants to retain her seat.
Poblet was born in New Mexico but grew up in Buenos Aires and east Los Angeles. She has lived in Berkeley for 10 years. She is nationally known for her work in organizing tenants and pushing for technology companies to do more to offset the displacement their employees have caused. The New York Times featured Poblet in a story in July about her work to place an initiative on the San Francisco ballot that would impose a payroll tax on technology companies to help pay for housing.
Poblet, a UC Berkeley graduate, was awarded the 2016 Levi Strauss Pioneer Award for her work in preventing evictions and organizing communities.
The Rent Board appointed her on a 5-2-1 vote. Commissioners Leah Simon-Weisberg, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Igor Tregub, James Chang, and Christina Murphy all voted in favor of Poblet. Rent Board Chair John Selawsky abstained and Paola Laverde and Jesse Townley voted against Poblet.
Poblet’s appointment was somewhat of a surprise since the Rent Board’s Ad Hoc Replacement Committee, which vetted those who applied to replace Harr, voted twice to recommend another candidate, Poki Namkung, an epidemiologist who has served as a health officer for the cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
However, the Rent Board Commissioners took a straw poll in the meeting to see who the favored replacement was, according to Simon-Weisberg. When Poblet received four first-place straw votes to Namkung’s three, the board considered Poblet’s elevation first, she said. She was then appointed.
“She is one of the tenants’ rights giants in California,” said Simon-Weisberg. “She has spent the last 20 years helping to strengthen tenant protections.”
Poblet served many years as executive director at St. Peter’s Housing Committee in San Francisco and then spearheaded a merger with Just Cause Oakland in 2010 to form Causa Justa. The new group brought together one organization that had spent 25 years organizing Latinos with one that had spent 10 years organizing Blacks to push for economic and racial justice. Causa Justa is now the largest tenants’ rights group in the Bay Area. Poblet served as the organization’s executive director from 2010 until early 2017.
Simon-Weisberg said she voted for Poblet because the Rent Stabilization Board has not done a particularly effective job organizing tenants and Poblet can address that deficit. The Rent Board wants to get people more engaged.
“There was a consensus, a majority of us felt that we wanted someone who had more experience in movement building, who was coming from the tenant movement,” said Simon-Weisberg.
Poblet said Tuesday she is excited about joining what she considers an effective elected body.
“The Rent Board is the most effective grassroots-powered rent board in the country,” said Poblet. “It’s working on behalf of everyday people to keep them in their homes, to regulate rents and also weighing in on larger policy issues, like Costa-Hawkins, which deregulated the housing market and created crises for our community. It’s exciting to join a body that’s really on a mission and functioning well and able to play this bigger role. I am not a lawyer.I am not a policy wonk.I am not a politician. I come from movement building among everyday people and I think that’s a good contribution to make at this particular time.”
Traditionally, the Rent Board has been a stepping stone to higher office in Berkeley. Wesley Hester, Betty Olds, Max Anderson, and current Mayor Jesse Arreguín all went from the Rent Board to the City Council.