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The McConnell Report • June 23, 2009

Salute to Betty Olds

On Sunday, March 22, a hundred or so people will gather to say thank you to one of Berkeley’s most outstanding civic leaders, the Honorable Betty Olds, former Rent Board Commissioner and Member of the Berkeley City Council. 

In my career, I have been to many events like this. I go to pay respect to politicians and other civic leaders for their years of service. Too often, however, I really cannot think of special accomplishments made by the honored guests. In fact, there have been many occasions in the past when I was asked to speak at one of these events that I would stay up at night trying to think of something important to say about this or that politician.

Not the case with Betty Olds. She served this city for a very long time with distinction and made a great impact along the way. Friends who know her well know that while Betty is as sweet as can be, she is also as tough as nails. She holds no punches and, in a town that oozes with political correctness, Betty speaks her mind clearly so not even a fool can mistake the point she is making.

I remember a contentious rent board meeting where a member droned on and on about his view of the world. Sweet Betty was patient for a while, but when the guy just kept talking and interrupting other Board members, tough Betty turned to him and said “shut up you little twit, grown-ups are trying to have a discussion.”

Betty and I have also had a lot of fun together. I remember the nude protesters, a man and two women, who showed up at a City Council meeting to assert their right to strut around naked and show off their bodies. Betty told me the guy didn’t have much to show off and little to be particularly proud of. I told Betty that the nude women had made their point. Their naked bodies proved that a women’s body is not necessarily a sex object.

My relationship with Betty goes back to the first (and only) annual national rent control conference. Back then I was in charge of the Washington, DC, Rental Housing Commission. When I saw a notice advertising the conference in Berkeley, I thought it would be great to visit California on the DC government’s dime (that was how I thought back then when I was a good bureaucrat) so I talked the appointed commissioners into attending. We brought a delegation of three to Berkeley.

One of our guys was originally from Oakland. He was in charge of our adjudication division and was supposed to give a speech. The night before the conference he went down to Jack London Square where he met up with old friends. He got so drunk that he was a no show the next day. I had to give the speech and that’s when I met Betty.

The conference was held down at the marina. Before my presentation, some Berkeley hack was going on and on about how landlords are evil and rent is theft. I took on the Berkeley guy and told him that not all tenants are as virtuous as he described or landlords as devilish. I spoke about the need for balance. Rent control, I said, should be about regulating excessive rent increases, not interfering with the day to day relationships between most landlords and tenants who get along quite well without government interference. 

Following my speech, Betty approached me and asked if I would consider relocating to Berkeley and serving as executive director of the rent board. Well, you know the rest of that story.

Not many people knew this at the time, but Betty and former State Senator Nick Petris were always of the same mind about Berkeley rent control. They believed in fair regulation, but they agreed that the way Berkeley punished landlords was anything but fair.

After Betty left the Rent Board and became a City Council Member, she and a delegation of moderate former rent board members accompanied me to a meeting with Nick Petris to discuss rent control. Betty spoke plainly and frankly, like she always did, about the many efforts that she and others had taken to make Berkeley rent control fair and reasonable. She told Senator Petris that Berkeley just seemed to be incapable of treating landlords fairly. That was the day that Nick Petris told me that he would vote for vacancy decontrol.

To me, Betty Olds is the best friend that Berkeley landlords have ever had. If I am given credit for Costa Hawkins and all that it has done to make it possible for landlords to survive in Berkeley, let it be known that without Betty I would never have come to this city and without her help Nick Petris may never have voted for Costa Hawkins. 

I really look forward to the event in honor of Betty Olds. I hear that many, if not all, of her colleagues from the days when I worked at the rent board will be in attendance. This will be a fun event and a great opportunity to honor a truly deserving public servant.

I salute my great friend and mentor Betty Olds.

Update on Building Bridges Dinner Meeting

In my last column, I indicated that the dinner meeting would be in March. By now you know that the meeting has been rescheduled to May 14. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. I was in the dark about this change until after my last report was in print.

Greg McConnell is the principal consultant at The McConnell Group, a consulting and advocacy firm that specializes in housing issues and advises apartment and housing associations, property management companies, and individual owners throughout California. For more information please visit

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