Name: Leah Simon-Weisberg, 49, housing attorney
What office/district are you are running for? Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner
What is the main reason you are running? I am running for re-election for Berkeley Rent Board commissioner because I feel strongly that all rent boards must be accountable to the people and — there is no better way than through an election. Berkeley and Santa Monica both have elected rent boards and I believe it is no surprise that they are the two most effective and well-enforced rent control ordinances in the state. This, however, requires qualified people to volunteer to run and serve.
Why are you qualified? If elected, I would bring 17 years of legal experience as a tenant attorney. I have practiced in almost every rent control jurisdiction in the state. I am an expert and statewide leader on rent control, landlord-tenant law, and housing policy.
What sets you apart from other candidates? I currently serve as vice-chair of the Berkeley rent board and have led the board’s work in expanding rent control protections and preventing displacement. This past winter I represented Moms 4 Housing in court, fighting for their right to live in an empty corporate-owned home on the grounds that housing is a human right. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I helped close the Alameda and San Francisco courts, organized elected officials to pass eviction moratoria, including a permanent ban on the eviction of tenants for the inability to pay rent accrued during the pandemic.
I also have extensive experience with supervision and the running of an organization. This provides me with the skills necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the rent board and provide leadership in the impending process of hiring a new executive director.
Along with the other members of the other pro-tenant Right to Housing Rent Board slate, I have extensive community support. After being elected out of a field of more than eleven candidates to run on the progressive slate at the Berkeley Tenant Convention, I have received an extensive range of endorsements such as the Sierra Club, the Alameda County Democratic Party and the Alameda Labor Council.
What brought you to Berkeley and when did you come? My family lived in Berkeley when I was born because my father was attending UC Berkeley for law school. I returned to Berkeley in 2009 after working in LA while my husband attended film school at UCLA. We returned to Berkeley because we wanted to live in a community that prioritized quality, integrated and inclusive schools, the outdoors, the Pacific Film Archive and rent control. My daughter attended the JCC Preschool, Malcolm X Elementary and is now a 6th grader at Willard Middle School.
What are the three biggest challenges for Berkeley in the next five years?
1. Covid-19 impact on the ability for tenants to be able to pay rent. While we have implemented an eviction moratorium, it does not solve the problem long term. It also does not address the growing debt that tenants are accruing and the financial strain that non-corporate landlords might be experiencing.
2. Loss of teachers due to lack of housing affordability in Berkeley.
3. Responding to the impact of the impending economic downturn on the housing market.
What are your ideas to begin to solve them? Berkeley was already in the middle of an affordability crisis. Adding a pandemic with no one at the wheel in the White House has created a rental housing crisis unfathomable before now. I never expected to face millions of tenants across the country completely unable to pay rent. The short term response was to pass an eviction moratorium. I developed the idea of converting unpaid rent to solely consumer debt and not a debt that could lead to an eviction. This was only a temporary response. We now have to face the impending debt. Canceling the rent has been the call but what does that really look like. I would like landlords whose tenants cannot pay rent to come forward and give the City of Berkeley hard data so that we can understand the scope of the problem. I would then like to match landlords that will literally lose their homes and tenants who will literally lose their homes and prioritize these tenancies for rent relief. I want to ensure that we do not make the same mistake that we made during the foreclosure crisis where large corporations were bailed out and then able to buy up housing that working families lost to foreclosure for pennies on the dollar. I want to prevent rent relief from becoming another bailout for large corporate out of state landlords. Instead, we must prioritize locally owned small landlords, non-profit affordable housing providers and community land trusts.
What is your most inspired/unique idea for Berkeley? Four years ago, I suggested in my response to Berkeleyside’s questionnaire that the city of Berkeley consider providing seed money for community land trusts. I am happy to say that the City of Berkeley has so and more. The next step is to pass a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to facilitate the purchase by local residents instead of corporate owners from out of state.
How will you be accessible to constituents? Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been difficult to hold any regular office hours. I hope to use Zoom and social media to welcome communication and ideas from constituents. I will also continue to have discussions with community groups in Berkeley. As issues and challenges arise I will reach out to community groups to solicit feedback, ideas, and input. I will work with rent board staff to ensure concerns are communicated to the board and outreach is a priority.
What year were you elected and what have been your biggest accomplishments? I was elected in 2016. I have been a strong voice for tenant protections throughout my tenure. I drafted the ban on source of income discrimination ordinance for the city of Berkeley and am working hard to enforce it. I have ensured that Berkeley tenants have legal representation when facing eviction by funding Eviction Defense Center and East Bay Community Law Center. I advocated for the eviction moratorium which was the first to be passed in California.
How much money do you expect to spend on your campaign? The Right to Housing slate works together and I think we each hope to raise $5,000.
Share a personal interest or passion people might be surprised to learn about. I would like to talk about how I surf or rock climb, I can’t really because I have not been able to for several years. Two years ago, I found out that I had the BRCA 1 mutation that indicates a very high risk of cancer that is not very responsive to treatment. I have had four surgeries including a full mastectomy. I am very lucky that I had access to great doctors — several who live in Berkeley — and a month ago had my last procedure. I am thankful that I found out that I had the gene mutation before I actually had cancer and will be able to see my daughter grow up. I write this as I find out that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died of complications from cancer.