When a Berkeley tenant’s roommate, a student at UC Berkeley, left the city a month before the pandemic unfolded, the tenant decided to renew the lease on their rent-controlled apartment. The tenant said they thought they could find another roommate, and they reckoned it would be hard to find a cheaper place to live.
But as the pandemic stripped the city of much of its student population, the anonymous tenant, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of retaliation, was unable to find a roommate. The cost they spent on rent effectively doubled, which they could not afford, according to the tenant.
However, their landlord — Premium Properties, a Berkeley real estate company — allegedly tried to include late fees in their monthly bills, according to the tenant.
Under Berkeley laws passed in response to the pandemic, renters cannot be evicted except in specific conditions, and it is illegal for landlords to charge late fees to renters who provide a declaration of COVID-19-related financial distress, as in the case of the tenant.
In response to the allegations, Premium Properties president Sam Sorokin said the company has not been charging any of its tenants with late fees. It is possible that the anonymous tenant found late fees on their bill, Sorokin said, but this would have been due to a system error that can be resolved as the company is not collecting late fees.
As of press time, Premium Properties could not be reached for comment.
Housing in the Bay Area is among the most expensive in the nation. Legislation, including rent control, has not entirely managed to counterbalance the high demand for housing in Berkeley caused in part by the more than 40,000 students competing for fewer units of campus housing.
As students left campus in response to the pandemic, demand for housing in the city decreased, dropping rent prices. As the city and state governments imposed eviction moratoriums and other restrictions on landlords, rental owners felt the squeeze, according to Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association.
“If a tenant is just not paying rent and still living in the unit, that’s really hard,” Gulbransen said. “But most small owners can’t afford to leave their property empty. They need the income, whether to maintain the buildings or to help them with their own incomes.”
Despite the eviction moratorium, Matthew Lewis, secretary of the Berkeley Tenants Union, or BTU, alleged that landlords have been breaking Berkeley laws. His organization represented a tenant who fell one month behind on rent, and their landlord tried to forcibly evict them. The BTU also represented the aforementioned anonymous tenant.
Gulbransen and Aman Daro, the chief operating officer at Red Oak Realty, credit the high pre-pandemic cost of housing to supply and demand, compounded by government regulation.