With UC Berkeley’s housing crisis currently underway, the majority of students have been forced to live off-campus as the search for more affordable rent, larger physical space than offered by dorms and of a sense of independence continues.
This presents a challenge for many new lease signatories; dealing with landlords, rent increases and complex tenant rights is proving difficult.
Over the past few months, I have had to deal with my own litigation involving the leasing company that represents the owner of the house I live in. I hope that my experience and the resources and advice I have received can be applied to multiple situations and help raise awareness of the tenant rights enjoyed by all students living off campus.
I currently live in a lovely house with eight other tenants, six of whom are moving next year. The other three of us have organized a new group of six students to replace those who will be moving.
Incoming tenants applied through the leasing company’s website as sub-tenants — essentially, replacement roommates. We originally intended to add them through a sublet addendum to carefully document the change in roommates and confirm that the three original tenants remained in the unit.
At first, everything seemed fine. Our leasing company had no problems with any of the new applications. Rather, the problems started when they suddenly tried to argue that we weren’t allowed to sign an addendum and instead had to sign a whole new lease.
Their proposed “new lease” included a rent increase of more than 20%. And their reasoning? We were adding too many new roommates and the landlord wouldn’t approve.
This massive increase in the cost of living was certainly undesirable and unaffordable for me and most of my roommates. How could they refuse our request for new roommates just because we had too many?
I was so frustrated and therefore determined to search Berkeley’s rent ordinance to find out if we were exempt from such a massive price increase.
The first place I checked was the Berkeley Rent Board.
“The order regulates most residential rent in Berkeley, provides tenants with increased protection against unjustified evictions, and aims to maintain affordable housing and preserve community diversity,” the City of Berkeley website states.
Berkeley’s rent laws aim to make the city a more tenant-friendly municipality. It is therefore essential to know our local laws and how they may differ from the regulations of another city.
I started by checking whether or not my unit was covered by rent control – it turns out yes. Following this, I contacted a housing counselor through a Google form. The form allowed me to make an appointment with a qualified professional in a few days.
I found our conversation extremely helpful. My advisor assured me that my group was fully entitled to receive a rent-controlled lease, which would maintain the same rates as the original. They pointed out that landlords can only set a new rent cap when all the original tenants in a lease have moved out.
This stipulation is confirmed by the rental commission subletting guidewhich asserts that all original residents must vacate a unit before a new initial rent amount can be established.
Otherwise, a new initial rate would mean that the leasing company can settle the unit on the current market value, rather than the rent-controlled price. Although owners have the right to raise prices under rent controlthey can only do so at a fixed rate for an entire calendar year following the year of the initial signing of the lease.
For example, a lease signed in 2022 would only be eligible for a rent-controlled increase in 2024.
With this information now clear to me, I felt much more confident and secure in my rights.
I’m so glad my band didn’t just sign a new lease, ignoring the protections afforded to us by the Berkeley Rent Ordinance.
And while I was glad I talked to the rent board, I also wanted to speak to a lawyer. Turns out UC Berkeley offers free legal consultation services for a wide range of issues, including tenants’ rights. It has proven to be a great way to take advantage of the campus student services network.
I spoke to Mark Lucia, Student Advocate and Campus Director of Student Legal Services, and really appreciated his advice. Not only did he confirm what the housing counselor was mentioning, but he also directed me to the city ordinance on acceptable causes for expulsion.
Turns out your landlord can’t evict you for housing sub-tenants as long as you give proper notice, don’t exceed the number of occupants allowed under the original lease, and provide enough information for a standard background check on any new subtenant. .
This essentially ensured that we did not risk eviction for adding sub-tenants as the leasing company never provided a substantial reason to refuse them. We were also in compliance with ongoing procedures for adding new sub-tenants to our lease.
With legal precedent established, it was time to communicate what I had found to my leasing company.
Student Legal Services prepared a written summary of Berkeley tenant rights for me, which I then sent to my leasing company.
Fortunately, this led to a good faith discussion between my group and the leasing company. If that hadn’t happened, I had prepared myself by researching other options in case we received a less than savory response.
First of all, the rental agency offers a free and fast service mediation service where they will help resolve any issues between you and your current landlord over the phone. The advantage of this approach is that it can be done quickly and without the need for a lot of paperwork. On the other hand, it will require your landlord to voluntarily make a good faith effort to resolve any disputes or disagreements.
If mediation fails, the next option is to file a formal complaint petition with the rents council. While there is a wide range of petitions offered for specific circumstances, the one that applies to this case is the section titled “Petition for Eligibility for Initial Rent Fixing”, which you can file through this form.
Ideally, your landlord will follow local ordinances and understand how and when rent control applies. If an inappropriate rent increase is imposed, even accidentally, it is essential that tenants understand the laws that protect them and the services available to support their case.
This applies even more to students and new tenants, who typically have no experience dealing with landlords and navigating written legal codes.
My case is just one of many potential ways for landlords to take advantage of UC Berkeley students. I highly recommend reading the Berkeley Rent Board’s student and more complete guide for rent control and eviction protection. Who knows, it might be useful to you too.
Contact Alexandre Christiano at [email protected]