A copy of a bill that a Berkeley resident received, which they said was in error. Credit: Sarah Bowles

The Rent Stabilization Board sent thousands of Berkeley homes incorrect rental registration bills in May due to a mailing error, according to rent board officials and residents.

Anyone who received an incorrect notice can call the rent board between 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 510-9817-368 ext. 2, or email rentregistry@berkeleyca.gov

The bills, part of the annual crop of Rental Registry fees under Measure MM, went out to about 9,000 Berkeley residents. DéSeana Williams, the executive director, said 2,400 of those were in error — meaning residents exempt from the rent registry received a notice of a bill due by July 3.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, board chair, said the original notices went out May 12, and residents would have started receiving them around May 15.

“On the 25th, we started getting people calling saying something is up,” Simon-Weisberg said.

She said the rent board sent correction emails to residents whose emails they had on file on May 26 and May 30 and followed up with emails by post on May 30.

All paper correction letters should have arrived in mailboxes by this week, and Williams and Simon-Weisberg said they confirmed that no payments were accepted from residents who are exempt.

“We haven’t accepted any payments from any of these properties that are saying, ‘Hey, we got this bill, and we don’t understand,'” Williams said.

For a resident to make a payment in the rent board portal, they have to move through the entire three-to-four-step registration process, Williams said, and the system would show a $0 bill for an exempt property.

The exempt properties may, at one time, have been rented out or undergone a code inspection that was entered into the rent board’s mailing system. In 2020, the Rent Board initiated the rent registry process following the passage of Measure MM and began migrating “decades worth of information” into a new system, Simon-Weisberg said. This spring, the rent board tried to select certain categories from its mailing list to narrow its notification system, but exempt properties were selected by mistake.

“It’s frustrating, and it’s one of those best-laid plans because we were trying to be more specific with residents about what letters they got — and instead it did this,” Simon-Weisberg said, referring to the “mail merge” process for notices this year. “We never want people to feel any stress when they’re getting letters from the government.

Sarah Bowles, a Cragmont resident, received a letter from the rent board in May claiming her home was subject to the $178 rental registration fee. Bowles said her home has never been rented, and she replied to the rent board’s message with a long email explaining the home’s property history. She hasn’t paid any bill, and rent board officials said she wouldn’t need to register or pay in a case like this.

Still, the process was tedious and stressful, and Bowles said many of her neighbors who received bills had varying experiences disputing the notices with the rent board.

“It says, ‘If a payment isn’t sent by the due date, a penalty will be assessed.’ You can’t send threatening language in a form and then mandate that I fill out this unit status form and go through their unit registry online,” Bowles said.

Williams clarified that exempt properties are not required to undergo any unit registry process, and the best way to respond to incorrect notices — which don’t require payment — is to call or email the rent board and ensure unit status is correct within their mailing list.

“[The error] really is unfortunate — these are folks that don’t have to deal with our system,” Simon-Weisberg said. “It was really the wrong people to get it, and we’re very sorry that it happened.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...