The Berkeley Rent Board Mailbag

Tenant Rights & Responsibilities

Q: I am a tenant and think I'm being overcharged. According to the Rent Board, the rent ceiling for my apartment is $1,525. I'm being charged $1,555. What should I do?

The first thing to do is to verify that the rent ceiling is accurate for your unit. The ceiling is most likely accurate if the tenancy start date and amount you paid when you moved in are correct in the Rent Board records. If so, then you are probably being overcharged. Figure out how much you have overpaid, write a letter to your landlord telling him/her what your rent ceiling is and stating that you plan to pay only the ceiling from now on, and that you would like to deduct the amount you have overpaid from the next month's rent. Explain that if you do not hear from him/her before the rent is due, you will go ahead with your plan. If your landlord refuses to allow you to make these corrections, you may file a petition with the Rent Board for Illegally High Rent, and you will receive a determination from the Rent Board that will authorize you to make the deductions.

Q: I am scheduled to attend a Rent Board hearing a few weeks from now for a rent reduction petition that I filed. I'm a little anxious about it because I know my landlord is bringing his attorney with him. How can I make sure I am as prepared as possible on the hearing date?

Review all of the facts and claims in your case so that they are fresh in your mind for the hearing. Be sure that you have compiled as much documentation as you can to support your claims. Items such as canceled rent checks and/or rent receipts, inspection reports from the Berkeley Housing Department, photographs and written correspondence between yourself and your landlord may be filed as part of the official record of your case. As your hearing date approaches, if you uncover additional documents that you did not file with your petition, you may bring those to the hearing as long as you provide a copy for the opposing party and the Hearing Examiner.

You should also familiarize yourself with Section 12 of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and Chapter 12 of the Rent Board Regulations. These provisions set out the petition process, hearing procedure, standard of proof, and grounds for rent decreases. Copies of the Ordinance and Regulations are available at the Board's office and at the public libraries and may be viewed on our Internet site. Counselors in the Board's Public Information Unit are available to answer questions about the Ordinance, Regulations, and hearing process.

Rent Board hearings are informal proceedings in which the technical rules of evidence do not apply. Therefore, many parties feel comfortable attending a hearing without a representative. You may, if you wish, attend a hearing prior to your scheduled appearance in order to take a first-hand look at the process. All Rent Board hearings are open to the public. Call the Rent Board Hearings Unit for assistance in identifying an upcoming hearing that addresses grounds that are similar to those in your case. Be sure to check back with the Hearings Unit staff on the day before you plan to sit in on a hearing to be sure that the specific hearing you are planning to observe has not been canceled.

Q: About two years ago, I graduated and moved from Berkeley to take a job. While I was in school, I never checked with the Rent Board about my rent. I've since found out that I was substantially overcharged. Is it too late for me to take action against my former landlord?

Rent Board Regulation 1206 now allows former tenants to file petitions for recovery of rent overcharges up to three years after they vacated. Since you moved out less than three years ago, you may file a petition for Individual Rent Adjustment with the Rent Board on the basis of illegally high rent. You may request a petition from our office or download a petition form from the Board's website and file by return mail. It is advisable that you substantiate your claim by submitting proof of the amount of rent paid (canceled checks, rent receipts, etc.). If the landlord does not object to your petition, your petition may be decided without a hearing. In that case, the Board would simply mail its decision on your petition to both you and your former landlord.

If the petition is decided in your favor and the landlord still does not refund the overcharges to you, you may need to pursue the matter in Small Claims Court in order to recover the monies owed to you. Small Claims Court has historically followed the decision of the Rent Board on issues of rent overcharges. In the meantime, the landlord would be ineligible for any rent increases, including Board-approved Annual General Adjustments, until you receive your refund.

Q: I understand that a tenant is required to maintain rental property in a responsible manner. What if an otherwise good, reliable tenant accidentally damages the unit? For instance, if linoleum flooring is accidentally torn while moving a piece of furniture, is the tenant liable for that damage?

California Civil Code §1950.5 states that a landlord may use the tenant's security deposit "for any purpose, including, but not limited to…the repair of damages to the premises, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, caused by the tenant or by a guest or licensee of the tenant." So the question is whether the tear in the floor is better characterized as "ordinary wear and tear" or not. Assuming that the tear is significant, it is quite likely that the tenant will be held responsible for the damage, however accidental. The charge, however, must be reasonable and proportional to the damage. Thus, if the floor can be "patched," then the landlord should not charge for replacement of the entire floor, especially when the linoleum is already worn.

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