Tenants Rally Against Landlord Lawsuit

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Displaying bowls of Ramen Noodle soup and holding up handmade posters, angry Berkeley tenants protested a landlord group's impending lawsuit outside a ritzy waterfront restaurant last night.

Members of the Berkeley Property Owners' Association announced their decision at H's Lordships Restaurant to retain Sacramento lawyer Jim Parrinello in a lawsuit they plan to file next week. The suit accuses the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board of raising rents just $6 last year - not nearly enough to cover landlords' cost-of-living increases.

As the jeans-clad protesters picketed outside, the landlords dined on filet mignon, baked salmon and tiramisu layer cake. The demonstrators used the event to denounce what they called the hiring of a "high-priced, gun-slinging attorney" to undermine affordable housing policies.

As they sipped cocktails inside the waterfront restaurant, many landlords were eager to discuss the lawsuit's ramifications.

Berkeley resident Renee Guillory said she has trouble paying the mortgage on her properties because rents have remained so low.

Her one-bedroom apartment rents for nearly $350 a month, and tenants in her two-bedroom apartment pay less than $500. Without rent control, she said they could charge between $1,200 and $2,000 a month.

"The lady across the hall is paying under $500 and her neighbor is paying three times that per month," she said. "It's so low that we're forced to charge for extras like parking and storage."

The problem, landlords said, is that rent control discourages owners from renting their apartments, driving up the market value of existing units.

Robert Cabrera, president of the Berkeley Property Owners' Association, said the group invited Parrinello to speak at the dinner to highlight the continuing battle against rent control. Although state courts have ruled that the city must boost rent rates to cover inflation costs, Cabrera said the rent increases are not enough to cover landlords' expenses.

The lawsuit claims that the rent board ignored the advice of its own consultants when determining the $6 increase, forcing landlords to raise new tenants' rents just to make up the difference.

"Right now, we have a situation where people are paying $300-$400 for an apartment that in an open market would go for $1,000-$1,200," Cabrera said. "Six dollars does not even come close."

The tenants outside the restaurant, many of them students and rent board candidates, likened the increasing rents to legalized extortion and said they often cannot afford to live in the city.

UC Berkeley sophomore Sarah Trejo said she pays $2,000 a month for her two-bedroom apartment. On top of that, Trejo said, she had to put down a $7,000 security deposit just to move in.

Rent Board Commissioner Max Anderson said landlords' exorbitant rents force students and many other low income residents to seek housing elsewhere.

"There are dramatic contradictions displayed here tonight," he said. "They have the baked salmon, the filet mignon, the $50,000 lawyer. If the landlords are successful, we could end up with Palo Alto here instead of Berkeley."


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