-By Igor Tregub
It’s difficult for me to evoke my feelings about the orderly transition of policy-making authority that I am about to pass on. Some transitions can be planned for over the course of months or even years; in my case, I had less than two weeks to take the projects I planned to undertake and pass them off to the next board. As unexpected as this shift has been, one thing is for certain. The voters of Berkeley have spoken, and it is time for me to pass on the torch to a new generation. The big winner here is the democratic process. Such orderly transitions, so much a fact of life in this city and this nation, have not always been the norm in my country of origin – one of many reasons that I am so proud to call this place my home.
I am reminded that public service is a privilege, and can be a fleeting one at that. I thank the voters of Berkeley for entrusting me – in the same year that a certain presidential candidate who, like me, had a nonstandard family story and a funny name, was elected – with the opportunity to exercise this public service at the local level.
I will always look back with pride at what we have accomplished together. Two internship programs, which provide college credit and valuable public policy and project management experience to a budding generation of university students and recent alumni, will continue to train the next group of leaders. In response to the foreclosure crisis in the Bay Area, we successfully matched up HUD-certified housing counselors, attorneys, banks, Rent Board staff, and elected officials with homeowners, landlords, and tenants who need the help at last year’s Foreclosure Prevention and Resources Workshop, which received the Barbara Lee Certificate of Congressional Recognition.
We jumped through various legal loopholes and communication silos to successfully craft a revised Relocation Ordinance, with stronger tenant protections and more outreach to property owners. We were victorious in advocating – along with our friends on the Housing Advisory Commission and the Sierra Club – for the maximum feasible housing mitigation fee for new construction locally, while playing a role, through our legislative advocate and advocacy, in support of various common-sense tenant-landlord relationship and housing bills at the state level.
Through organizing several Seismic Days of Action while working through legislative channels with the Mayor and City Council, there is now stronger property owner compliance with Phase I of the Soft-Story Ordinance, while efforts have been stepped up to enact Phase II – the seismic retrofitting provisions. We have realized enormous improvements in the efficiency and ease with which data can be handled through a revamped Rental Tracking System, and in our ability to outreach to a broader demographic in Berkeley through a social media policy, all while running one of the healthiest budgets in the City, and only having to raise registration fees once during my tenure. An achievement I am perhaps most proud of is also one I’m glad I didn’t wait to implement in a second term that never happened. In the past two months, thousands of voter registration forms went out to new tenants and property owners in Berkeley, giving the Rent Board yet another role to play in providing a public service to our constituents.
Clearly, there is far more work to be done. Ironically, we are reminded of this tonight, on the one-year anniversary of the largest apartment fire in modern Berkeley history. Through the good grace of fortune no tenants were hurt or lost their lives, several pets perished, as did all the valuable belongings and many life savings belonging to these tenants. The aggrieved tenants only received back their security deposit – and, if they qualified, some financial assistance from a Rent Board fund allowing them to start piecing together their lives. There are revisions to the Demolition Ordinance underway on which I will try to find some way to work with you, perhaps in my continuing Housing Advisory Commissioner role. This will ensure that never again will tenants lose everything if a building burns down through no fault of their own and if there is a case to be made that neglect in maintaining the building contributed to the root cause.
But to be effective at reaching win-win solutions for property owners and tenants alike, a spirit of collaboration must be present. I believe that the Rent Board has been a good-faith partner in these discussions. For example, responding to the concern expressed by Sid Lakireddi, the President of the Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA), that Rent Board registration fees are unfair because new construction and Section 8 units are exempt, some commissioners began to brainstorm if imposing a modest registration fee on new, large-scale construction that covered various critical life-safety programs would result in a reduction in the per-unit cost of registering properties across the board. In the heat of the campaign, these good-faith attempts to lower the burden on small property owners were villified and incorrectly characterized as being something that they were not. The critics that circulated emails on this matter knew full well that these were not attempts to go beyond the scope of the ordinance and impose a $194 registration fee on exempt forms of housing, such as cooperatives or single-family homes.
Similarly, the BPOA has a terrific model lease on its website, and as has been proposed by Rent Board commissioners in the past, could collaborate with stakeholders like the ASUC to incentivize its use by property owners. Students, content that this model lease does not impose any provisions that are unnecessary or illegal, would vote with their feet by prioritizing those properties that use it when shopping around for an apartment.
It is my sincere hope that, now that the election is over and the time for taking political pot- shots long past, commissioners and these stakeholders will sit down and earnestly discuss these and other opportunities to find common ground without fear that their words will be twisted on them.
I congratulate the new generation on this board to whom I’m passing the torch – Judy Hunt and Alejandro Soto-Vigil. I trust they will find – as I did – that the ability to impact policy in a way that helps families stay together and preserves the diversity of Berkeley and that the opportunity to maximize affordable housing for tenants while ensuring that our regulations provide landlords the ability to make a positive net operating income – in short, that the chance to help people through the policy instruments at these new commissioners’ disposal, will be the joy of their lives. That, like me, they will find this labor of love called the Rent Board so engrossing and worthwhile that they will spend 10-20 hours a week on it and still feel that they have barely scratched the surface.
I would be remiss in not thanking the awesome staff of the Rent Board and the ever-working, ever-caring Executive Director. All of you epitomize the highest calibers of sacrifice and professionalism in public service.
In the generations to come, our names will hardly be remembered, but the effects of the work we do here will live on. As Ted Kennedy once said, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Thank you to all of you who have given me the opportunity to spend the last four years being part of our shared cause, hope, and dream to leave this a better community for those who will come after us.