The RRAC, A Deeply Flawed Organ

The RRAC, A Deeply Flawed Organ

 

The Rent Review and Advisory Committee (RRAC) is a tribunal of five mayoral appointees with authority to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants. It is a throwback to British feudalism where the nobility of a region had judicial powers delegated by a monarch, represented in this case by the mayor. Ironically, even the name RRAC recalls a mechanism of medieval torture.

The RRAC holds renters up for public scrutiny, requiring they stand before them at a podium and justify their resistance to a rent increase or an eviction, often revealing sensitive details of personal circumstances and finances. This intimidating forum exploits the inherently weak negotiating position of tenants who, once they have moved in and settled, are vulnerable to landlord retaliation if they complain. 

Of the 130 rent increase cases filed in the three months ending with September, 27 tenants (21 percent) canceled and moved out rather than face the RRAC.

Per the city’s website: “The RRAC (committee) is comprised of five volunteer members: two owners, two renters and one homeowner. Members are not advocates for tenants and landlords, rather the committee acts as a third-party mediator of rent increase disputes. The committee members are nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council. 

Common factors under consideration by the committee include but are not limited to:
• frequency, amount and the presence or absence of prior rent increases
• landlord’s costs of operation
• any increases or decreases in housing services since the last rent increase
• financial impact on the tenant
• landlord’s interest in earning a just and reasonable rate of return on the landlord’s property”

The word “just” leaps out at me. I have never heard of a “just rate of return,” and it’s a term with sinister implications of political cronyism. What criteria confer this right to “just” rate of return? Family name? Political party? Political donor status? “Just” reeks of classism and cronyism.

A key concern about the RRAC is vulnerability to political influence. RRAC appointees are beholden to the mayor who appoints them, and mayors tend to be biased toward the rich and powerful who can donate large sums for their re-elections. Tenants are aware of this and avoid the RRAC because they fear they won’t get a fair hearing. They also fear landlord retaliation. I learned of this during my eight weeks of petitioning.

Another concern is that many of the RRAC’s decisions are non-binding and can result in expensive mediation that many renters cannot afford. Furthermore, since the mediators files are sealed, the process can be abused and housing discrimination laws skirted. An elected rent board’s files are subject to public record requests. Mediation files are not.

During the first two months of operation, the RRAC’s average approved rent increase was almost 8 percent. In September that average rose to 10.5 percent, far above the advertised 5 percent limit. At 8 percent, rent doubles in 9 years, a disaster for many families.

Landlords may have learned to game the system by going in with double what they want and settle for half, giving the false impression of an arms-length negotiation. No wonder they love the RRAC. It fills pockets and flatters egos. If the RRAC is so effective, as Councilmember Daysog has emphasized, how about sending those 27 families a customer satisfaction survey?

It is time for a change.

 

 

 

Monty J. Heying has lived in Alameda for 16 years.