Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board candidate Soulmaz Panahi. Courtesy: Panahi campaign

Name: Soulmaz Panahi, 42, real estate agent

What office/district are you are running for? Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner

What is the main reason you are running? As an immigrant from Iran who worked hard to establish myself as a real estate agent, I know the challenges of buying and maintaining rental property in Berkeley. I like assisting small owners who have worked hard to buy their properties and who want to provide affordable housing options. I was shocked to learn that the rent board has no property owner representation. Every other rent board in California has balanced and equal representation so that all voices are heard when deciding on important rental housing policy. This motivated me to run for the rent board position so that I may provide a more balanced approach to rental housing policy in Berkeley. I want to be able to represent those small owners who are investing in our community.

Why are you qualified? I have unique experience because I regularly interact and connect with both property owners and tenants. I hear their stories and I know the impact rent board policies can have on the rental business. It’s a confusing and complex ecosystem that I think can be greatly improved with more equal representation. My business perspective and firsthand experience in rental housing will allow me to be a voice for both the owner and renter. Living with your renter can be a very personal experience for both parties. The current rent board lacks the property owner’s perspective and I intend to fill that gap to better improve policymaking.

What sets you apart from other candidates? I care deeply about where I live. I am an advocate for green business and choose to work for a company that is a certified green business. I care for my community and I want there to be more options for others like me who come to Berkeley with the hopes of creating a better life for themselves.

We are sorely lacking in a variety of housing options due to failed policies that discourage making units available to long-term renters. I believe the care and love that I have for Berkeley, combined with my knowledge in the housing market will help me further my mission to increase affordable housing.

I intend to bring oversight and accountability to the rent board on behalf of renters and owners. I will propose policy that helps to increase the availability of units in Berkeley while providing a variety of options for renters. We can’t just subsist on high-rise luxury units to solve our affordable housing problems. I am committed to making informed and data-driven decisions so property owners who fund the rent board can be confident that their dollars are being spent to promote safe and affordable rental housing in Berkeley.

What brought you to Berkeley and when did you come? I immigrated to Berkeley from Iran in 2009. I came from a country where the words “fair” and “justice” have little meaning or respect. In Berkeley, I found I had landed in a diverse and welcoming city that made me feel like anything was possible for my future. I met my husband in Iran whose family has been a part of Berkeley for 40 years, and at one time owned and managed Café del Sol. Although I have not been in Berkeley long, it has been easy to call this place my home and I am proud to live here.

What are the three biggest challenges for Berkeley in the next five years? I believe our biggest challenges are affordable housing, homeless and sustainability. To see ourselves out of these complex problems, we must create policy that provides a healthy ecosystem for everyone. While this isn’t easy, I think it is possible to stop destroying our city’s ability to provide more affordable housing options.

What are your ideas to begin to solve them? While the rent board can’t solve all these problems on their own, they should work with various stakeholders on both of sides of the equation to craft reasonable policy. With property owner representation on the rent board, I would work with my colleagues to create rental housing policies that: 1. Incentivize owners to build new units (without changing the landscape of Berkeley) and bring forward existing units to be used as long-term rentals. 2. Differentiate between small investors who are using their properties to fund their retirement and large out-of-area investors. 3. Preserve the rental housing we currently have by encouraging investment in repairs, maintenance, and green energy use. 4. Educate owners and renters about the housing market, economics, and the rental market.

What is your most inspired/unique idea for Berkeley? To provide financial incentives for low-income and fixed-income property owners in South Berkeley to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit. With supportive financing, the housing could be set aside to house members of our community that have been pushed out of Berkeley due to rising costs. With the continued increase in costs for building in Berkeley, it’s imperative that we create reasons for property owners to add additional new housing.

How will you be accessible to constituents? I will let the constituents know when, where and how they can reach me. I will be open to any community member that wants to express their concerns and ideas with me. I will be flexible in my ability to meet with them at a time that is convenient to them. I will follow up to make sure we are working towards a solution and not spinning our wheels to find one.

Why should voters choose you over the incumbent? Voters should choose me because Berkeley is the only city in California with a rent board that does not have equal representation. It’s clear that decisions cannot be made fairly and in the best interest of both renter and property owner if there is not equal representation.

The Berkeley rent board registration fee is one of the highest in the state of California, yet the agency is responsible for just a fraction of rent-controlled units that exist in San Francisco or Oakland. Isn’t it time that Berkeley citizens know how their money is being spent? A 2012 Alameda Grand Jury report found that the rent board is “a self-sustaining bureaucracy that operates without effective oversight and accountability.” Voters should choose me for increased transparency of this government agency.

How much money do you expect to spend on your campaign? I expect to spend what I need in order to reach Berkeley voters and inform them of the lack of property owner representation on the current rent board.

Share a personal interest or passion people might be surprised to learn about. I make the best Persian dishes for you. Once the pandemic is gone, I would welcome anyone in my home to discover all the wonder of Persian food!

Learn more about Soulmaz Panahi online: WebsiteRead more about Soulmaz Panahi on Berkeleyside. See complete 2020 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

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