BERKELEY -- The small crowd gathered Tuesday evening in front of Old City Hall before the City Council meeting with the "Bad Landlord" signs was not protesting a private building owner.

They are tenants in the city-owned Telegraph-Channing Mall, located underneath the Sather Gate Garage between Channing Way and Durant Avenue, protesting what they said are unfair rent hikes imposed by the city.

"We need a fair rent adjustment," said Charles Lee, who pays rent of $3.37 per square foot at Michelle's Yogurt.

While long term mall tenants have their rents hiked 4 percent each year, Lee said the increases should be scaled back to the Consumer Price Index. He calculated that over the past 10 years, he's paid about $19,000 more than he would have if the rents been raised at the CPI level.

"When you calculate it, it's about one year's worth of our rent," Lee said. Moreover, he added, new tenants at the mall pay just $1.50 per square foot.

Reiko Redmonde, of Revolution Books, noted that poor economic conditions have not brought rent relief. "The city leases mandated large increases during some of the worst economic conditions on Telegraph Avenue in recent history," she said.

City staff however, pointed out in a December 17 report, that mall rents "are consistent or below rates in the area."

Deputy City Manager William Rogers did not return phone calls and emails and city spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city does not want to negotiate rents through the press. Chakko said in an email that meetings with tenants have been or are being scheduled and that a variety of factors enter into the rents, such as where tenants are located within the mall and the improvements a tenant is willing to make to the property.

Mall tenants say rents should be lower than their neighbors, given that their site is not a friendly passageway for students going from dorms to the campus and that the windows are blocked by pillars.

"Our stores are in the basement of the parking garage," Lee said. "We are not exposed to the street. It's not a very desirable location."

In September the council asked city staff to meet with tenants. Redmonde said the city has met with some, but not all of them. She said they'd received offers of a slight rent reduction, but then the city found that the tenants hadn't been charged a "possessory interest assessment," a property tax for services such as lighting, parks and schools. Those charges have offset any rent reduction proposed, she said.

Though their concerns were not on the council agenda, tenants spoke at the meeting and Councilman Kriss Worthington asked the city manager to meet with tenants and negotiate.

"There's a lack of logic and apparent fairness (in the rents)," Worthington said after the meeting, adding that comparing rents of the stores located in the mall to those in better Telegraph Avenue locations was "not comparing apples to apples."