Seeing a chance to rework rent control in the 2020 election, the city's Rental Housing Committee took an opportunity to spitball some ideas for improving the law.
At the Monday, Aug. 13, meeting, committee members expressed enthusiasm for an opportunity to fix various unforeseen problems that emerged from the 2016 law known as the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA). But they also hinted at concern that the push to revise rent control could wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Last month, the Mountain View City Council began preparations for a 2020 ballot measure to amend the city's rent control program. Exactly what revisions they would make remains unclear, but council members have suggested they would like greater power over rent control policies, including the ability to amend the law's language. They proposed streamlining the petition process, clarifying the law's murky status for mobile homes and possibly raising the annual cap on rents.
Some of these ideas elicited a little head-scratching at the Rental Housing Committee's meeting. While the council described rent control as too rigid and inflexible, the law actually had some degree of latitude baked into it, pointed out committee member Emily Ramos. The City Council members would benefit from learning a little about the committee before they start changing its duties, she suggested.
"There's a feeling that the council doesn't really know what we do," Ramos said. "There's a lot of wiggle room where the Rental Housing Committee can adjust things as needed. That's important for the council to know."
Calls to fast-track the petition process could also be tricky. This process allows landlords to request an additional rent increase beyond what is normally allowed if they can prove that they had to make essential repairs or maintenance to their apartments. Ever since the law passed, landlords have complained that the petition review was too cumbersome and required painstaking documentation of all bookkeeping.
For more than a year, the Rental Housing Committee has struggled to facilitate this process, and the new opportunity to rewrite the law didn't make it much easier. Across the board, the rental committee members favored a streamlined process, but they weren't so sure what kinds of petitions should be accelerated. The one exception: everyone agreed that petitions attached to residential seismic retrofits should be swiftly approved, especially if the city makes earthquake upgrades mandatory in the future.
Committee member Julian Pardo de Zela suggested severely reducing the burden of proof on all petitions. In turn, Chairman Matthew Grunewald proposed making petitions approved by default on the condition that the city could later audit any questionable claims.
"The system right now is too punitive, and I don't think that's inadvertent," Pardo de Zela said. "I don't see anything from this except making life miserable for landlords. We've tried one way, so maybe now the pendulum should shift the other way."
A majority of the committee favored extending rental protections to mobile homes parks, a long-sought goal for mobile home residents. Last year, rental housing committee members demurred on including mobile homes because they believed the CSFRA was too vague, and it would spur a legal challenge. But if the city leaders were going to bring the law back to voters, then it made sense to specifically cover mobile homes, Grunwald said.
Several speakers also urged the city to consider looking again at the whether duplexes should be covered under the law. Residents pointed out that multiple duplex properties in Mountain View were operating just like apartments, but they were ineligible for rent control because of a technicality in the policy language.
Committee member Vanessa Honey was firmly against any expansion of rent control coverage, and instead she sought ideas that would limit the financial costs for landlords. She proposed a hard $100 cap on the annual fees collected to fund the rental housing program, and she suggested some of that cost should fall on tenants.
Politically, the push to reform rent control seems destined to struggle at winning allies due to how polarized the issue has become. Tenant advocates have been wary that the city's grab-bag approach to amending rent control would end up watering down the law to the detriment of renters. At a prior meeting, a City Council committee proposed raising the annual cap on rent increases, and giving city leaders some level of authority to change the law as they see fit.
"There's a lot of troubling parts of what's being recommended," said Alex Nunez, a Mountain View Tenants Coalition member. "This is not going to benefit tenants; this is just an opportunity to weaken protections in favor of landlords."
But landlords have been even more hostile in their reaction to the city's possible a ballot measure. With their own ballot initiative planned for 2020, landlord groups see the city's measure as unfair competition that could siphon off voters.
"The fact of the matter is the entirety of CSFRA should be repealed," said Curt Conroy, a Mountain View landlord who frequently spoken on the issue. "Proponents have little sense for what an affront this is to the free market. If they did, they would realize this is one more nail in the coffin for housing development."
The city will attempt the daunting task of trying to bridge those differences next week when they have scheduled a stakeholder outreach meeting.
Email Mark Noack at firstname.lastname@example.org