Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board took issue with the tone and conclusions of a recent Grand Jury Report on the board. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board took issue with the tone and conclusions of a recent Grand Jury Report on the board. Photo: Tracey Taylor

In response to a critical report by the Alameda County Grand Jury, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board will commission an outside expert to review the appropriateness of the program’s workload and staffing.

And while the board will not consider reducing the director’s $183,000 salary, it will conduct an annual assessment of his performance in addition to the full-scale review it now does every three years.

Despite agreeing to those changes, the Rent Stabilization Board took issue with the tone and conclusions of the Grand Jury Report, which was released in June and stated the board was a “self-sustaining bureaucracy that operates without effective oversight and accountability.”

“We would have welcomed a critical, fact-based analysis of the Rent Board’s charge under the City Charter: the administration of the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance,” reads the official response to the Grand Jury report. “Unfortunately, this Grand Jury missed such an opportunity, and has instead issued a report that ignores significant evidence substantiating our effective enforcement of Berkeley’s rent and eviction laws, choosing to mask a disagreement about policy as a critique about administration. Even more troubling for an official report from a public body, the report relies on inaccuracies, half-truth and innuendo to give a veneer of plausibility to its claims.”

The Grand Jury requested an official response to its June report by Sept. 24. The BRSB adopted a 29-page rebuttal on August 20 in an 8-1 vote with Nicole Drake dissenting. It will send its formal response to the Grand Jury soon, according to Jay Kelekian, the executive director.

The report is similar to the letter that Chair Lisa Stephens issued in June, although it lays out in more detail the history of the board, the rental laws governing the state, and the demographics and income levels of many of Berkeley’s long-term tenants. It also responds point by point the criticisms brought up by the Grand Jury.

  • The Grand Jury criticized Berkeley for its high rental registration fees and charged that landlords are prohibited from passing on those fees to tenants. Berkeley assesses landlords $194 per rental unit, compared to Oakland’s assessment of $30 per unit and San Francisco’s $25 per unit assessment, according to the report. The BRSB said fees are higher in Berkeley because its program is more effective and proactive than other cities’, which costs more. For example, instead of waiting for tenants to file a complaint about rent gouging and then going to investigate, Berkeley requires annual rent registration, which it then verifies. It also provides some legal advice to tenants. Berkeley does allow pass-through of many landlord fees to tenants, according to BSRB. The rebuttal report rejected the Grand Jury’s request to allow landlords to pass through a larger proportion of the rental registration fees.
  • The Grand Jury report criticized the BSRB for its staffing levels, which it believes should have gone down significantly when vacancy decontrol was adopted. It suggested that Berkeley conduct a position-control audit to evaluate the number of staff, their classifications, and workloads. The rebuttal report takes issue with the notion that staffing should have decreased. Vacancy decontrol actually made things worse, according to the Rent Board’s response, because it gives landlords incentive to evict tenants. In addition, the recent foreclosure crisis has increased the number of threats to terminate tenancies. According to the Rent Board, the Grand Jury report is plain wrong; at one time there were 36 employees, but now the level hovers around 19-21 employees. They are all hired by Berkeley’s Human Resources Department, which also sets its salaries. Although the Rent Board rejected the Grand Jury request to audit its employees, it will commission an outside expert to review the appropriateness of the program’s workload and staffing
  • The Grand Jury report said there was not enough accountability and oversight of the BSRB, that favoritism was used to hire employees, that the executive director’s performance was not reviewed regularly enough, and that he was overpaid for the size of his staff and budget. In addition, the $500 paid each month to the elected members of the Rent Board, plus health benefits “was excessive.” The Rent Board report disagreed with this assessment and pointed out the board is elected and is accountable to voters. Its meetings are televised and open to the public. The board participates in the city of Berkeley’s annual outside audit, and Berkeley’s Human Resource Department sets the salary level for all employees, except that of the director, which is set by the board. The BSRB report did say the Rent Board would ask the City Council for a review of “all executive compensation citywide.” It concluded that the executive director’s salary was set at an appropriate level. It also said the $500 monthly salary for Rent Board members had not gone up since 1985.
  • The BSRB report said that the Rent Board, contrary to claims made by the Grand Jury, is responsive to landlord concerns. Four of the eight members of the board are property owners, and two of those are landlords. More than half of staff contacts are with property owners. A recent survey of landlords determined that most found the information they received after contacting the Rent Board to be useful and the staff was professional and courteous.

Read the Rent Stabilization Board’s response to the Grand Jury. The Alameda County Grand Jury report on the BRSB begins on page 63.

Grand Jury criticizes Rent Stabilization Board

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...