SF supes panel recommends unseating gay rent board member

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 15, 2019
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Rent board commissioner Reese Aaron Isbell. Photo: Courtesy Reese Aaron Isbell
Rent board commissioner Reese Aaron Isbell. Photo: Courtesy Reese Aaron Isbell

A committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has recommended that a gay member of the city's rent board be unseated. The supervisors will take up the matter at their April 23 meeting.

The brouhaha began when Mayor London Breed swore in Democratic Party activist and former state legislative aide Reese Aaron Isbell onto the oversight body March 29. The rent board oversees how much property owners can annually raise rents on rent-controlled units and resolves tenant complaints against their landlords.

Isbell's first meeting was Tuesday, April 9, replacing longtime rent board commissioner Polly Marshall. She had blasted how the mayor's office handled her desire to be nominated for another term in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

She did not find out about Isbell being given the seat until reading about it in a B.A.R. story posted online the day of his swearing in. Tenants rights activists supportive of Marshall have questioned Isbell's qualifications to serve on the quasi-judicial panel.

A number of progressive supervisors have echoed those concerns, including District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. Chair of the rules committee, she called for Monday's hearing and voted along with District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar to recommend that Isbell be removed from the rent board.

"I want to explore today the depth and breadth of your knowledge in this subject area," she told Isbell before asking him pointed legal questions. "Given the importance of this position, it is incumbent of the supervisors to carefully examine and scrutinize the qualifications of the mayor's appointee."

Stressing that her concerns were not focused on him personally, Ronen said she questioned his knowledge about local rent laws and ability to handle cases that come before the rent board.

"I have no question about your dedication to tenants and to your commitment and intelligence and to your experience whatsoever. With almost any other commission in the city, I agree, the ability to learn on the job is completely possible," Ronen said. "My particular concern with the rent board is that practically every meeting you could be creating precedent that then locks in for the future other tenants. These are very intricate and difficult areas of the law."

Mar said he believes the rent board appointment "requires much deeper knowledge and expertise on tenant issues" as for why he decided to oppose Isbell for the seat.

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton voted against recommending Isbell be unseated. He said he was confident that Isbell was up to the task.

"He is working hard to learn everything he needs to be successful in this role," said Walton. "He knows the inequities himself as a renter."

Isbell argued that his 20 years of policy work on local and state issues had given him the necessary experience to be a member of the rent board. He also spoke of his experience fighting his landlord's attempt to raise his rent after his husband moved in following their marriage.

"I know what it is like to come home to find a piece of paper under my doorway giving me notice from my landlord and being terrified to open it," said Isbell.

He pledged to work with tenants rights groups and noted he had reached out to various individuals working on housing issues since joining the rent board.

"I bring my own experiences as an unemployed renter with me to these discussions," he said. "I am not the same as everyone else on the rent board. I plan to use those different experiences with my own expertise in advocacy and policy at the federal and state level to find new ways to keep renters in their homes."

A number of speakers urged the supervisors to reject Isbell due to his lack of legal expertise on housing issues and asked that Marshall be reappointed. Others spoke on behalf of Isbell and his ability to do outreach to the community.

Ronen said the responses to her questions did not give her faith that Isbell was up to the task of the position. She suggested it would have been better had he been named as an alternate to the rent board so that he would have time to become knowledgeable about the laws involved.

"Clearly you have the passion, the intelligence, you have the passion to do this job," she said. "My only concern is the subsequent knowledge."

Although the board can't force Breed to reappoint Marshall, it can reject Isbell with a super-majority vote of eight supervisors. Breed is standing by her appointee.