The offices of the Berkeley Rent Board on Milvia Street. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Mari Mendonca, a Berkeley native and school groundskeeper who serves on the Housing Advisory Council, is the newest member of the Rent Stabilization Board. She replaces Christina Murphy, who resigned from her elected position on the board in June.

The Rent Board voted unanimously Oct. 17 to appoint Mendonca. She was selected from a field of seven candidates.

Many rent board members said that Mendonca would bring missing attributes to the board. They pointed out that, like Murphy, she is African American. She is deeply involved in community activities. She is City Councilmember Ben Bartlett’s appointee on the city’s Housing Advisory Commission. She is a member of Friends of Adeline, a neighborhood group that is working to stop gentrification in south Berkeley and to help shape the area’s future as it undergoes new planning. She has also been involved with unions.

“I am the very constituency the Rent Board was created to serve,” Mendonca said in a presentation to the board. “I have always been very low-income, I have always been a tenant, I’ve been unhoused in Berkeley, I have been displaced from Berkeley.”

Commissioner James Chang agreed with that assessment: “She represents the community that almost doesn’t exist in Berkeley anymore,” he said. He was referring to the African American population, which has gone from about 20% of the population in 1970 to about 8% today.

Commissioner John Selawsky said in a written assessment that Mendonca “knows and understands the dynamics of South Berkeley gentrification and wants to be part of the solution to displacement and rising rents.”

Two other candidates got some support from sitting Rent Board commissioners but garnered fewer votes in a straw poll than Mendonca. They included Alfred Twu, a community activist and artist, and Nazreem Kadir, a retired consultant. Many commissioners urged them and the other candidates to run for a seat in 2020.

Mendonca said that real-life experiences would serve her well as a commissioner. She wrote in her application to the board that she experienced homelessness when she was a young mother, was displaced from Berkeley in 1994 and now lives in Section 8 housing. She currently works as a groundskeeper at Berkwood Hedge School in Berkeley.

Mendonca said she is sensitive to the forces of displacement. She mentioned to the board that a landlord once had called her up and abruptly asked when she was moving. Mendonca had no plans to leave and said so. The landlord then offered her some money to leave but suggested if she didn’t decide to take the funds then and there, they would never be offered again. Mendonca said she felt threatened.

Mendonca said that she sees the priorities of the Rent Board as addressing rising rents and the affordability crisis and educating renters about being forced out. In terms of helping landlords, Mendonca wants to make sure small property owners have the resources they need to make sure their units are habitable and to have help mediating disputes. She would like the Rent Board to do a better job reaching out to people of color and getting their participation, she wrote in her application.

In response to a question by Commissioner Soli Alpert, Mendonca acknowledged she did not know much about “golden duplexes,” (owner-occupied duplexes with tenants) but expressed dismay that there was no rent control or eviction control on them.

“That’s not okay,” she said.

Mendonca was appointed to fill the year left in Murphy’s term. If she wants to stay on the board, she will have to run for election in November 2020.

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...