Guest Opinion: We need a rent board member who can fight for us

  • by Deepa Varma and Tommi Avicolli Mecca
  • Wednesday April 17, 2019
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Reese Aaron Isbell, left, stands to the side during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors rules committee Monday as other people wait to speak. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Reese Aaron Isbell, left, stands to the side during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors rules committee Monday as other people wait to speak. Photo: Rick Gerharter

As tenant advocates, we fight every day to keep our neighbors and our communities here in the city. Our organizations counsel the vast majority of rent control tenants who seek help in San Francisco. We know how difficult the fight is right now and how important it is to have experienced advocates on the San Francisco Rent Board.

That's why we can't support the mayor's appointment to the rent board commission, an appointment made without consulting tenant advocates, something every mayor since Dianne Feinstein has done.

The commission decides on crucial issues we face, such as whether we get a rent increase or not, the difference between being forced out of our apartments or staying in them. It also makes the rules and regulations that give us rights, such as adding a roommate and not being forced to sign a new lease that is materially different than the one we have. It hears appeals of decisions by the administrative law judges at the rent board.

The commission is made up of two tenant representatives, two landlord representatives, and a "neutral" homeowner. Tenant groups have always chosen the tenant representatives, and landlord groups the landlord representatives.

Tenant groups have always chosen commissioners based on who is most qualified to do the job of fighting for our rights. This is not a political appointment, or a reward for loyalty or service. It's about who has the experience to do the best job of keeping us in our homes. It's a lot of work, for little pay. It doesn't come with a lot of fanfare, or political power. It does, however, provide an incredible service to our tenant community.

That's why we are so concerned about the mayor's appointment of Reese Aaron Isbell for this position. While we applaud Isbell for the good work he has done in the LGBT community, the Democratic Party (in helping to elect Democrats in last year's midterm elections), and with Friends of the Public Library, he's not right for this job. Isbell has next to no experience with the issues that are adjudicated by the rent board. While one doesn't need to be a lawyer to serve on the commission, legal experience does help a lot, especially up against landlord attorneys. Even someone with many years of tenant counseling under their belt couldn't handle the complicated legal arguments that ensue when an appeal is heard.

As tenant advocates who have sat through commission hearings, we can attest to the often-incomprehensible (to lay persons) nature of some of the discussions that happen there.

Why didn't the mayor simply reappoint Polly Marshall, who has been a rent board commissioner for over 30 years? She was reappointed by every administration since Feinstein. She has more knowledge about the rent ordinance and how it interacts with state law, and how it is applied in the courts than almost anyone else in the city. She has been central to the functioning of the rent board. She was willing to continue serving.

If the mayor wished to replace Marshall, she should have consulted with tenants rights organizations. That has always been the protocol at City Hall, in order to ensure the balance that was intended when the commission was set up.

We are dismayed at this disregard of protocol and worried that it sets a precedent that will not be good for tenants in this city. Our concern about the appointment of Isbell is not that he is objectionable as a person or as a political leader, but that he lacks the experience in rent board matters that is so essential to his job as a commissioner.

Deepa Varma is executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a queer longtime activist who works at the Housing Rights Committee.