Real estate interests spend heavily to support property-friendly rent board candidates

There is a full slate of five property owner-oriented candidates running for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board — and real estate interests are backing them big time.

Twelve people are running for five seats on the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Top row: Bahman Ahmadi, Bianca Zahrai, Soulmaz Panahi, Leah Simon-Weisberg, Wendy Saenz Hood Neufeld and Carole Marasovic; bottom row, Mari Mendonca, Pawel Moldenhawer, Dan McDunn, Andy Kelley, Dominique Walker and Xavier Johnson. Courtesy: candidates

For the first time in a decade, there is a full slate of five property owner-oriented candidates running for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board — and real estate interests are backing them big time.

Bahman Ahmadi, Dan McDunn, Soulmaz Panahi, Wendy Saenz Hood Neufeld, and Pawel Moldenhawer make up the “Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board” slate.” They are running on a platform on returning homeowners and small landlords to the rent board to balance out the current roster. There are five rent board seats up for grabs.

Their main competitors are the “Right to Housing” slate which bills itself as being tenant-friendly. Current Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg is on the slate, as are Xavier Johnson, Dominque Walker and Andy Kelley. Mari Mendonca was appointed to the rent board in October 2019 and is running to be elected for the first time.

Two candidates are not in any slate: Carole Marasovic and Bianca Zahrai.


Since Oct. 9, the National Association of Realtors Fund has spent $80,800 to support four candidates.

Since Oct. 9, the National Association of Realtors Fund has spent $80,800 to support four of the property owner-friendly candidates: Ahmadi, Neufeld, McDunn and Panahi, according to campaign finance records. The bulk of those funds went to support Ahmadi. The independent expenditure group spent $40,459 on online ads for him.

An independent expenditure group acts independently of any candidate. It cannot confer or coordinate with candidates.

No independent candidate group has sprung up to back the Right to Housing Slate.

Ahmadi said Monday he didn’t know anything about the independent expenditure campaign funds and he had no idea why money was being spent on him. He’s an engineer.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” he said. “I don’t have any communication with them. I’m not a Realtor. It’s a mystery to me.”


Kelley pointed out that the contributions made in a few hours dwarf all the money the 12 candidates for rent board have raised.

“It shocks me,” said Kelley. “It’s more than twice all of the other candidates have raised.”

Collectively, the 12 candidates raised $35,809 through the middle of September, according to campaign filings. Kelley has raised the most, at $8,760. Ahmadi has raised $3,140. Moldenhower has not raised any funds but lent his campaign $1.000. Zahrai did not file a campaign finance report, suggesting she has not raised any funds either. Rent Stabilization Board candidates can collect a maximum of $250 from donors.

In the last 10 years, there has only been one rent board commissioner elected who has identified as being landlord-friendly. That was Judy Hunt, who served as a commissioner from 2012-2016 but was defeated for re-election in 2016 and in 2018. She currently serves on the Board of Library Trustees.

Every two years since 2010, there have been a handful of landlord and property owner oriented candidates that have run for vacant seats. They have mostly lost. The progressive slate backed by the Berkeley Tenants Union and other groups has tended to prevail.


“The people they choose are not very representative,” said John Selawsky, a rent board commissioner on the executive committee of the Berkeley Tenants Union. He has donated $100 to each of the candidates on the “Right to Housing” slate. “They are real estate agents. They are developers. It’s clear where they stand. They are not out to protect the rent ordinance, which the charter requires.”

Panahi, one of the candidates on the “Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board” slate, lists her occupation as real estate agent. The other job titles are employee and benefits attorney, engineer, green general contractor, media consultant, and homebuilder.

Krista Gulbransen, who has been volunteering advice to the Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board slate, and is also the executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners’ Association, said the balance on the rent board is out of whack and is due for a realignment.

“The imbalance has been going on for so long with just tenant representatives that it seems unfair,” she said. “

The rent board oversees the day to day oversight and management of the city’s rent control ordinance. If Measure MM passes in November, the new rent board will have to oversee its implementation. Measure MM would require single-family homes that are rented out as well as new apartments to register with the rent board, even though they are not subject to rent control (although eviction controls apply to new construction). It would also require ADUs built on properties with multi-family dwellings to be subject to rent control.

The new board will also have to choose a new executive director. The former director, Jay Kelekian, retired in May in the middle of an investigation, allegedly for harassment of an employee.

(A humorous note: The URL (web address) for the Right to Housing slate is www.berkeleyrentboard.org while the web address for the Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board slate is www.transparentrentboard.com.)


Donations by independent expenditure groups

Another real estate group, the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Campaign, has spent $11,582 on research and mailings to defeat District 2 City Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who is running for reelection, according to campaign finance records.

The “Berkeley Neighbors for Affordability, Committee Major Funding from Bay Area Housing Advocacy Coalition, Supporting Alex Sharenko and Terry Taplin for District 2 City Council 2020” group has spent $3,402 in support of Sharenko and $3,800 on behalf of Taplin, according to documents filed with the city.

Berkeleyside, through its parent organization Cityside, has received sponsorship revenue from many candidates running in the November election. Our editorial policy, outlined in full here, states: Berkeleyside retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of contributors or their products, services or opinions.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.