If you've been out in Mountain View the past few weeks, you've probably been approached by someone holding a clipboard, asking if you'll sign a petition for something called "The Mountain View Homeowner, Renter, and Taxpayer Protection Initiative." And if you ask for details, you'll likely get very different answers.
When visitors at the farmers market were asked to sign, they were told it would expand rent control to all homes in the city. When Sahara Village residents were solicited, they were told it would protect the city's mobile home parks from rent increases. When this Voice reporter was asked to sign, he was told it would prevent evictions and strengthen rent control.
In fact, all of these claims border on outright falsehoods. The proposed measure would almost certainly result in a suspension of the city's renter protections passed as Measure V in 2016, giving landlords a free rein for rent increases on most apartments. The initiative is being spearheaded not by tenants but by the California Apartment Association, and its main backers include some of the city's largest landlords.
The push to collect signatures in time for a June deadline is leading to many reports of paid workers allegedly bending the truth to get residents to jot down their names. Proponents and those they've hired need to collect about 5,150 signatures within a matter of days to get the measure qualified for the November ballot.
Several Mountain View residents told the Voice they signed the petition after being told they were supporting stronger renter protections. Monte Loma resident Laurent Dinard said he signed the petition two weeks ago, after a signature gatherer came to his doorstep saying it would boost the city's rent control measure and prevent it from sunsetting. He later learned that was false.
"I was told this was needed to prevent rent control from expiring. That was the word he told me: It was 'expiring," Dinard said. "I feel like I was duped."
Members of the Mountain View Tenants Coalition say incidents like that have become common as a way to get residents to support a measure they say is intended to be confusing.
Vacancy rate triggers 'sneaky repeal'
At first glance, the proposed measure would appear to create a milder version of rent control with income restrictions for tenant eligibility and caps on the program's costs. But buried on page 12, the measure has a crucial clause that essentially renders most of its language moot: If the city's vacancy rate ever exceeds 3 percent, then nearly all tenant protections must be suspended, it reads.
Except in extraordinary circumstances, this would mean nearly all city's rent control provisions and eviction protections would be immediately nullified, possibly never to return, said tenant advocates, who have dubbed it the "sneaky repeal."
The city's vacancy rate -- which currently hovers at 4.1 percent -- has rarely dipped below 3 percent for any year on record, according to city officials. Vacancy data going back about 20 years from the real estate tracking firm CoStar shows a brief period around 2000-01 when about 2 percent of Mountain View apartments were unoccupied, but city officials are skeptical of that data. City Associate Planner Anky van Deursen told the Voice that vacancy data is unreliable and inconsistent until around 2006, and she advised against looking for trends in prior years.
While signature gatherers can point to various proposed tweaks to the city's rent control program, the measure's real impact would be to suspend renter protections indefinitely, said Steve Chandler, a spokesman for the Tenants Coalition.
"Most of the measure is just window dressing and a big distraction because this whole effort is really about eliminating rent control," Chandler said. "Our vacancy rate is always above 3 percent; that's where it hovers all the time."
Measure V Too Costly, a political group promoting the ballot measure, declined to answer questions about the proposed measure when asked by the Voice, saying it would compromise "campaign strategy."
"Signature gatherers are clear on the proposed initiative," said Laura Teutschel, a Measure V Too Costly spokeswoman. "This is more scare tactics and nonsense from the Mountain View Tenants Coalition."
One of the measure's main proponents, former Mayor John Inks, has helped collect signatures as a volunteer. Asked about the 3 percent threshold, Inks said that he wasn't directly involved in drafting the ballot initiative. The measure's language was authored by an attorney hired by the California Apartment Association and their political consulting firm, Wheelhouse Strategy Group, he said.
"I didn't write it, and I wouldn't have chosen the language that they did," Inks said. "But if it's a balance of Measure V versus an alternative, I'd go for the alternative."
By its nature, it is impossible to quickly describe the full measure to people on the street, he said.
"I just tell people it's setting a new bar for rent control. It's as simple as that," Inks said. "If software engineers are making $180,000, then they can afford to pay market rent here."
In recent days, signature gathering has been intensifying, with more paid workers going door-to-door. The fierce push has led to a premium bounty -- As of Wednesday some workers were saying they were being paid up to $40 per name they collect.
The pay-per-signature system for getting measures on the ballot has long drawn criticism for fostering deceptive tactics, and for allowing well-heeled groups to push forward a political agenda without popular support. Over the last decade, several proposed state bills have called for restricting the practice, such as forcing signature gatherers to disclose if they are being paid. A current bill in the state Senate would make paid signature gathering illegal.
It is already illegal under California elections and government code to intentionally mislead a voter as to the intent of a signature-gathering operation, but proving this crime is a difficult matter. In April, San Mateo County prosecutors arrested two signature gatherers working to overturn rent control in Pacifica. Investigators had received complaints that the workers were lying to get people to sign their names, but they couldn't prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in order to file criminal charges. Both workers were instead charged with forging about 100 signatures.
In Mountain View, tenant advocates have been trying to keep pressure on the signature gatherers by sending out their own members to follow them as they solicit citizens. In some cases, tenant advocates have been publicly challenging the claims being made for what the measure would do.
This has led to multiple squabbles, sometimes requiring law enforcement to get involved. Over the last two months, Mountain View police officials say they have been called out for as many as five incidents involving arguments over signature gathering.
Tenant advocates are also running a counter-operation against the petition campaign. In recent days, tenant campaigners have been knocking on doors to encourage people who signed the petition to file a letter with the city rescinding their support. So far, 23 requests to remove signatures have been filed, according to the City Clerk's office.
Over the weekend, Leticia Jones, a Tenants Coalition volunteer, said she canvassed a mobile home park and found nearly every resident, many of them seniors living on fixed incomes, had signed the petition. Days earlier, a signature gatherer had come through the neighborhood, telling residents he wasn't working for the "landlord petition," and was collecting signatures to save rent control and bring it to mobile homes.
It was hard to explain to them that they had been deceived, Jones said.
"Initially, there was a lot of confusion -- they didn't understand the difference between what we were offering and what they had signed," she said. "Almost every person we talked with thought this measure was helping rent control, they were under the impression it was phase two for Measure V."
Mobile homes are not currently covered under Mountain View's rent control law. Earlier this spring, the city's Rental Housing Commission voted against including tenants at mobile home parks.
The landlord-backed campaign to amend the city's rent control law will need to submit a petition with 5,156 valid signatures in order to be placed on the November ballot. The Santa County Registrar of Voters recommends initiative petitions be submitted by June 5 to provide about a month for their office to verify a subset of the signatures.
If these signatures are verified in time, the Mountain View City Council would be obligated to place the initiative on the November ballot at their July 24 meeting.