City to impose ordinance on local landlords

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In an effort to keep landlords in line with state law, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance that would impose a penalty on property owners who do not comply with California's screening fee procedures and require them to disclose information to prospective tenants about their rights.

The ordinance - passed unanimously by the council at Tuesday night's meeting - will go into effect in June if it is approved again at next week's meeting. The penalty fee would not be applicable until January 2013 in order to make sure landlords have enough time to become properly educated about the new law.

Under California law, property owners can charge a maximum screening fee of $42.41 - a price that increases annually based on the Consumer Price Index - to cover the cost of a credit or rental history background check on a rental applicant.

California law stipulates that landlords return unused money and provide tenants with an itemized receipt upon request. According to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who proposed the ordinance, these actions are often neglected without repercussion.

"I've been a tenant in Berkeley for nine years, and I've never received a receipt with an itemization," he said.

Arreguin said the ordinance would make it harder for landlords to pocket unused money from screening fees because tenants would know the rules and be entitled to a $250 penalty from landlords who do not comply.

Originally, the penalty was set to be twice that amount and to be implemented in June along with the rest of the ordinance, but after a meeting with the Berkeley Property Owners Association, Arreguin agreed to amend the ordinance.

Sid Lakireddy, president of the association, said he was concerned not only with the "excessive" fee but also that immediate implementation would limit opportunities to properly educate property owners.

"We have no opposition to following the law," Lakireddy said. "There needs to be an education campaign as opposed to just being punitive ... I personally am not aware of any abuse. Many landlords don't even charge an application fee ... If there were many people who looked at this as a revenue stream that they relied on, then we'd have a problem."

The ordinance's implementation would require no city funds and only minimal staff time, as the ordinance would be self-regulated by tenants who could file in small claims court if there were a discrepancy.

To ensure renters are fully aware of their rights, the city would also launch a website to which landlords could refer tenants during the application process.

"The Rent Stabilization Board has agreed to calculate the fee amount on an annual basis," Arreguin said. "They also agreed to develop and maintain the website that we will be directing tenant access to. They're going to be helping do outreach."

Arreguin said that the limited staff requirement was appealing to the city manager, Phil Kamlarz. Some student renters, however, said they are concerned that a lack of city involvement could possibly make it easy for landlords to take advantage of them.

Caitlin Catalano, coordinator of the tenant rights campaign for UC Berkeley's CALPIRG chapter, said many students enter into rental agreements without fully understanding what their landlords are allowed to do and that the city needs to actively prevent this.

"It's great that they've passed the laws, but if the city doesn't step in to regulate, things won't get done," Catalano said.


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