Rents Blog: The Rent Review Advisory Committee

Rents Blog: The Rent Review Advisory Committee

Michele Ellson

Alameda’s Rent Review Advisory Committee reviews complaints about potentially excessive rent increases and tries to mediate disputes between landlords and renters over a touchy subject that both may have a tough time discussing unaided: Money.

The committee, which meets monthly as complaints arise, is Alameda’s primary tool for addressing rent disputes. Chairperson Karen Miller says its approach has produced solutions for renters grappling with steep increases and poor property conditions.

“I think what we’re doing has been incredibly successful,” said Miller, a real estate agent and landlord who joined the committee more than a decade ago. “I’m interested just in helping negotiate and mediate between tenants and landlords because I think that there’s a common ground that can be found, and most of the time we find it.”

The City Council created the committee in 1979 to address rising rents. Its membership – appointed by the mayor to serve indefinite terms – includes two renters, two landlords and a neutral party. Renters who believe they have received an excessive rent increase can fill out and submit a complaint form available on the housing authority’s website, detailing the increase and any problems with the condition of the property where they live.

The committee doesn’t handle disputes over commercial rents and typically passes rent increase cases involving tenants receiving Section 8 assistance to the Alameda Housing Authority. Its primary jurisdiction lies with residential renters who don’t receive Section 8.

After a complaint has been submitted, housing authority staff schedules the matter for a hearing, informing the landlord that a complaint has been filed and letting both parties know that a hearing has been scheduled. While participation in the process is voluntary, Miller said landlords typically show up.

If they don’t, a second hearing is scheduled, and notices are again sent out. If the landlord again fails to appear, the case and the committee’s recommendations – which are not binding – go to the City Council, which can send a letter to the offending landlord.

Last year the council heard two disputes, one of them involving a new, off-Island property owner who raised rents on the apartments in her Benton Street property by as much as 67 percent. The increases and the owner’s refusal to discuss them prompted an angry response from council members, some of whom pledged to consider rent controls if property owners didn’t do a better job policing themselves.

Miller said that the Island’s large property management firms and local landlords – many of them mom-and-pops who own one or a handful of buildings – do often step in when they learn that a rent case is coming to the committee.

“If we know that there’s going to be a case, people contact that landlord and say, ‘This is not the way we do business in Alameda,’” Miller said. “Everyone here knows, it’s an understanding that we all live in this community, that we want this community to be diverse.”

Miller said that when she talks to landlords about rent disputes, she tries to put them in human terms.

“The biggest thing I tell landlords is, ‘This is not like buying a fruit stand.’ You are buying a business that deals with people’s lives,” she said. “I always tell a landlord, ‘What would you do if your mortgage went up 20 percent, with 60 days’ notice? Could you do that?’”

Numbers provided by the Alameda Housing Authority show that between 2000 and 2014, the committee was successful in resolving 71 percent of the cases renters brought to it. Last year the committee resolved eight of the 11 rent complaints it received. Typically, Miller said, everyone on the committee – landlords and tenants alike – agree on recommendations for solutions to the disputes.

Of the eight rent disputes the committee has received so far this year – the city’s fiscal year, and the committee’s calendar, begin July 1 – two were resolved by the committee and two more were resolved before the committee heard them. Tenants who filed two of the cases opted to move out before hearings were held, and the remaining two cases were heard this week.

Miller said the number of cases the committee sees typically rise and fall with the economy: As the economy picks up, properties turn over and rents rise, prompting complaints. Cases can involve a single tenant or hundreds of tenants in one building.

The solutions the committee offers can vary depending on the economy too, she said, though typically, the committee asks the tenant to say what they think would be fair. Miller said that in prior years the committee – which also considers landlords’ rising insurance, tax and capital costs – has recommended no increases or even rent reductions.

In recent years, it has recommended rent increases of no more than 10 percent, which she said is the “top tolerance point” most tenants can manage. The committee may also recommend that landlords stagger increases over more than a year, which could help balance both landlords’ and tenants’ needs to address their costs.

Tenants who have submitted complaints to the committee have confirmed it help them negotiate better deals with their landlords.

One tenant who appeared before the committee this week expressed optimism on the popular Alameda Peeps Facebook page about the process, saying she felt she was treated kindly and fairly by the committee and that she believes she and her landlord will be able to reach a fair compromise based on its recommendation.

Another tenant The Alamedan interviewed expressed some concerns about the process and what he’ll face in the future, though he acknowledged the committee helped him and some of his neighbors negotiate a reduced rent increase.

Garfield Kincross filed a complaint this year, he said, after a relatively new landlord sought to raise the rent on his one-bedroom apartment from $900 a month to $1,135 – a 21 percent increase. In his complaint, Kincross – who said he has lived in the same Central Avenue apartment for more than two decades – noted condition problems with his building that included poor swimming pool maintenance and pest problems that he had previously been reluctant to report or had trouble getting fixed.

Kincross said the committee convinced his landlord to reduce the rent increase meted out to himself and other renters who he said had also complained to 10 percent, or $90 a month.

“They interceded somehow,” he said.

Kincross said he felt singled out when committee members pointed out that he had gone several years without a rent increase, and he’s concerned that his rent will be raised again next year. He said that even with the reduced rent increase some tenants had to move, and he fears that he may soon be priced out of his apartment too.

Even with those concerns, he said the committee’s intervention helped: Other tenants who chose not to come forward are paying the higher rents, he said.

“What I didn’t like about it is, they had a formula of 10 percent, without considering anyone’s circumstances. But I have to take into consideration that the property tax is going up, and we’re in that together and everybody needs to be a little bit flexible,” he said.

While she’s proud of the work the committee has done, Miller said there are things she would change. She’d like to see the city do more to promote the existence of the committee and to see its status elevated from committee to board, which she thinks would boost its legitimacy. Miller said she also thinks landlords should be required to include information about the committee’s procedures with every lease so tenants know where to go if there’s a rent dispute.

The city is sponsoring a community-based process to discuss growing concerns over evictions and rising rents and to help inform the City Council’s decision making regarding what, if any, additional protections the city should provide. Miller said she thinks the committee is an effective tool for handling rent disputes.

“If our remedy stops working, do something else,” she said. “But it’s working.”

WHERE TO GO

Information about Alameda’s Rent Review Advisory Committee and a downloadable complaint form are available on the Alameda Housing Authority website. A downloadable copy of the form is also attached to the bottom of this blog post.

Next: What are the rules and responsibilities for renters and landlords in Alameda?

Comments

Submitted by Bill Smith (not verified) on Thu, Oct 9, 2014

Excellent summary of the Rent Review Advisory Committee procedures and results. Thank you Ms. Ellson for your informative story, which helps implement Karen Miller's recommendation to publicize the activities of the committee! The Alameda community will be stronger and more stable if more landlords and renters use the committee to mediate difficult disputes about rent.

To help us all better understand the rental situation in Alameda, I encourage readers who are renters to join nearly 200 other renters and fill out the rents survey posted at RenewedHopeHousing.org. If readers provide Renewed Hope with an e-mail address, we will inform you of the meetings of the citizens housing and rent review body that is now forming.

Bill Smith
Vice President
Renewed Hope Housing Advocates
VicePresident@RenewedHopeHousing.org

Submitted by Katie Seagren (not verified) on Thu, Oct 9, 2014

I am a renter here in Alameda and my boyfriend and I live at the Marine View Apartments and the rent has increased dramatically in the last 6 years that we have lived here and we are on limited income. I think that Alameda needs to have rent control because we can't afford the rent increase every year

Submitted by Anette (not verified) on Sat, Oct 18, 2014

I'm the person mentioned in this article that was feeling optomistic based on the Rent Advisory Committee's recommendation. Unfortunately, as a result of my application for review, my landlord has retaliated and given me 90-day notice to vacate my apartment. RAC isn't really helping people if they can't enforce their recommendations. I am absolutely devastated financially and emotionally. Knowing what I know now, I do not recommend going this route unless you want to move.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Oct 20, 2014

Hey Anette: I'd like to follow up with you on this. You can reach me at michele@thealamedan.org.

Submitted by Jan (not verified) on Fri, Nov 14, 2014

Annette, that's A wrongful eviction under California law.