Disappointed by the City Council's unwillingness to take stronger action, advocates for Mountain View's large tenant population are bringing a rent control measure to voters. A new ballot measure submitted for the November election would impose a cap on rent hikes in the city, forcing most landlords to keep annual increases in the range of 2 to 5 percent.
The new measure -- dubbed the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Charter Amendment -- comes in response to what many have described as a crisis in Mountain View's rental housing market. In recent months, scores of renters have spoken before the council, pleading for relief from large rent increases that they say are forcing many from their homes.
From 2011 to 2015, average rents in Mountain View increased 52.7 percent, according to a RealFacts market report cited by the Mountain View Tenants' Coalition.
After nearly half a year of debating the issue, a thin majority of the council last month agreed on a package of mediation programs and lease requirements intended to address the problem. While the city's ordinance, if given final approval, would place various new responsibilities on landlords, critics say it won't be effective because it doesn't include limits on annual rent increases, prevent retaliatory evictions or include binding arbitration if mediation fails.
"I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back ... it was the appropriate time to act," said Evan Ortiz, a spokesman for the Mountain View Tenants' Coalition. "We know there's a tremendous appetite for this in the community."
The coalition's rent control measure would mandate that rent increases adhere to the amount of increase in the Consumer Price Index for the Bay Area, in an amount set by June of each year. Even with that guidance, the measure still sets tighter boundaries, stipulating that rents can be raised at a minimum of 2 percent and at most 5 percent in any year.
Overseeing this process would be a new "Rental Housing Committee," a five-member panel appointed by the City Council that would be in charge of setting allowable rents or making new regulations. Landlords and tenants would be allowed to petition the committee to make exceptions to the rent limits. For example, the committee could sign off on higher rents if landlords can demonstrate they are abiding by all the rules but still not receiving a fair rate of return on their rental property, according to the measure. Similarly, tenants can request lower rents if their landlord is failing to keep the property up to living standards.
The initiative would also include "just-cause eviction" protections, stipulating a set of specific criteria for when landlords can evict tenants, such as failure to pay, causing a nuisance or criminal activity. Landlords would be still allowed to demolish and redevelop their properties so long as they get permits from the city and give tenants first dibs on any newly rebuilt apartment at the location.
The new rules under the proposed measure would affect only apartments built before 1995, due to provisions in the state Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. Single-family homes, condominiums, duplexes and granny units would also be exempted from the measure.
In a response to the new measure, Joshua Howard of the California Apartment Association warned that rent-control policies would do little to solve the South Bay affordability problems. Repeating an argument made by some Mountain View council members, he said the problem stems from a dearth of housing, which could be worsened if rent-control policies end up discouraging developers from building more.
"Rent control policies do not make housing more affordable and they do not do anything to encourage more housing construction," Howard said in an email. "These measures are the same failed policies that have led to higher housing costs and gentrification in cities that have adopted them."
The ballot measure was submitted to City Hall on Friday, April 1, but it still needs to clear a few hurdles before going on the ballot. The Mountain View city attorney will review the measure and summarize it for publication in the next two weeks. Once it's published, proponents will also need to gather enough signatures equal to 15 percent of the registered voters in town. The exact number hasn't been determined yet, but it will likely be around 4,500 signatures, according to the city clerk's office.
Proponents of the measure will need to submit everything to the city no later than Aug. 12. So far, no other city ballot measures have been proposed for the November election.
Mountain View voters last considered a rent control measure in the early 1980s, but the measure failed. Circumstances are starkly different today in Mountain View, Ortiz said.
"I'd expect we're going to have a vigorous public debate over this, but I would hope it will remain civil," Ortiz said. "I think Mountain View in the end will be better for having the conversation."
Email Mark Noack at firstname.lastname@example.org