Supes vote on Breed’s Rent Board appointee will be political test

Are there eight votes to defy the mayor's appointment of a Rent Board member who many say is clearly unqualified?

The full Board of Supes will be voting Tuesday/23 on the appointment of a supporter of Mayor Breed who has little connection with the organized tenant movement and no direct experience with the complexity of tenant law to the powerful Rent Board.

Breed broke with 40 years of tradition and appointed Reese Isbell to the job without consulting tenant groups.

Reese Isbell talks about his qualifications for the Rent Board

Eight votes are needed to reject the appointment, and the politics of that number also emerged at a hearing April 15.

Isbell, an Alice B. Toklas Club activist and former aide to state Sen. Mark Leno who broke with Leno and backed Breed for mayor, was named to a post on the agency, a quasi-judicial body that interprets and rules on critical issues involving tenant rights.

Isbell replaced lawyer Polly Marshall, who had been on the board for 35 years as a tenant representative and had the full support of most renter organizations in the city.

During a hearing at the Rules Committee, Isbell demonstrated his compassion and his interest in issues involving renters. He talked about the need for the Rent Board to do more outreach and connect with communities that don’t know their rights. He noted: “I don’t have the same background as everyone else … I want to learn.”

He is a gay man who has fought with his landlord over the right to have his husband on the lease in their apartment.

He also demonstrated that he has not been directly involved in tenant issues or legislation much in the past few years, and was completely unaware of some critical laws that the board recently passed.

Sup. Hillary Ronen, who chairs the Rules Committee, asked Isbell about a recent bill that bans the owners of single-family houses from using bad-faith rent hikes to effectively evict tenants. Isbell didn’t even know that the measure had passed and had no idea how the Rent Board would implement it.

“I have not looked at the legislation,” he said.

The she asked about several of the other major tenant bills that have come before the board – former Sup. Jane Kim’s Just Cause Eviction law, former Sup. David Campos’s buyout regulations, and a few others.

“I have not lobbied the board on any of those issues,” Isbell said.

Everyone agreed that Isbell is a devoted community activist. But as Tommi Mecca, who works at the Housing Rights Committee, put it:

“I have been a tenant counselor for 19 years, and I am not qualified to sit on the Rent Board, because I don’t have the legal training.” This stuff is difficult, and we’re talking in essence about a court whose decisions create legal precedent.

The landlord representatives include Dave Wasserman, a skilled and experienced landlord lawyer who knows every aspect of the rules and how to argue them, and David Gruber, who owns a property-management company. The “neutral” representative, Shoba Dandillaya, is also a lawyer and litigator.

Ronen, along with many tenant activists, said that the job requires someone with the training and skills to tangle with those folks. In fact, Ronen, who is a lawyer, said that she would not feel qualified for a post on the Rent Board because her background is in labor law.

“The shenanigans that landlords engage in are sophisticated, crafty, and fully lawyers up,” Ronen said.

“The reason that we are all here is that the mayor didn’t follow the protocol that has worked very well for the past 40 years,” Mecca said. She didn’t reach out to tenant groups.

On the other hand, testimony at the hearing suggested, Breed did reach out to the landlords for input on a vacant alternate seat for a landlord representative.

Sup. Shamann Walton, who could be one of the swing votes on the issue, appeared to be leaning in favor of approving Isbell. He said that the mayor had the right to appoint the person she wanted, and described Isbell as “qualified.”

Walton won with a lot of progressive support – but also the backing of the mayor — and this may be one of the first votes where he is in the position of siding with the progressive majority or siding with Breed on a crucial issue where his vote will be decisive.

The committee voted 2-1 to send the issue to the full board with a recommendation that Isbell’s appointment be rejected. Sup. Gordon Mar joined Ronen in voting yes; Walton voted no.