In an attempt to soften the city's rent control law, the Mountain View City Council on Tuesday night approved final language for a ballot measure that would go before voters in the 2020 March primary election.
The city-sponsored measure has been under development for nearly six months to revise the local rent control regulations known as the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA) that voters approved in 2016. The Tuesday, Nov. 12, meeting was the most important discussion so far because city leaders filled in many integral details that could determine how voters respond at the ballot box.
Most crucial for landlords and tenants alike, the City Council agreed to a measure that would raise the city's annual cap on rent hikes to a flat rate of 4%. Under the current rules, the maximum rent increase fluctuates each year based on the regional inflation rate, a system similar to how most other California cities administer rent control laws. For 2019, that rent cap is set at 3.5% for Mountain View.
Setting the right amount for allowable rent increases has been the big question for months as city leaders deliberated the measure. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga has insisted that the city needed to allow higher rent increases in order to prevent more apartments from being torn down and redeveloped. In past meetings, she advocated for a 5% increase, but she joined her colleagues in supporting 4% on Tuesday night.
"This is an attempt to incentivize housing providers to stay in the market and not take them off," she said. "You don't always get what you want all the time, but I think this is an attempt to build a compromise."
To her point, Councilman Lucas Ramirez, who has repeatedly warned against putting higher rents on tenants, said he would support the 4% higher increase, describing it as a "reasonable compromise." The lone opponent was Councilwoman Alison Hicks, who described raising rents as a deal-breaker that would kill the measure's chances at the ballot box.
It is debatable to what degree rent control has galvanized property owners to redevelop older, affordable apartments. While many elected leaders see a direct link between the two, tenant advocates say that the number of redevelopments has been no higher since rent control was enacted. Conversely, Assistant Community Development Director Wayne Chen told city leaders that there was no certainty that allowing higher rents would slow down redevelopment projects or the displacement of tenants.
"It's hard to say whether dialing this variable leads to a specific outcome," he said. "It's a difficult question to answer. You'll hear a variety of perspectives on what motivates a landlord to stay or exit the business."
Any attempt to fiddle with rent control touches on perhaps the most volatile and divisive issue in Mountain View politics. The 2016 rent control law, which covers about 15,000 apartments in the city, has become a policy as fiercely guarded by tenant advocates as it is loathed by landlords.
Prior to the city's interest in reforming CSFRA, another ballot measure to reform rent control was already well underway. Last year, a coalition of landlords and their advocates collected thousands of signatures for a measure known as the "Mountain View Homeowner Renter and Taxpayer Protection Initiative." In most circumstances, that measure would essentially neutralize rent control in Mountain View.
That voter-initiated measure was still in play, and city officials were obligated on Tuesday night to decide when both measures would be brought before voters next year. In the end, the City Council agreed to split up the two measures, bringing the city-sponsored measure to voters in the March 3 primary election while the landlord-backed measure would be postponed until the Nov. 3 presidential election.
By staggering the two measures, the city would have leverage to convince landlords to withdraw their initiative, said Councilman Chris Clark. If the city's measure passes in March, he expressed confidence that apartment owners' opposition to rent control would be mollified.
"It's possible that we'll have some means to approach them and say, 'Is this really worth it?" he said. "The compromise we're talking about is that this is better for property owners than the (CSFRA), so it might be enough that it's not worth fighting the battle this year."
In response, Ramirez questioned the logic of spreading out the ballot measures over two separate elections. It was highly unlikely that landlords would drop their measure, and instead this would mean the community would face two grueling fights over rent control, he warned.
"By any metric, their measure is better for property owners," he said. "And it's already qualified, so why wouldn't they go for it?"
When asked by the Voice, Joshua Howard of the California Apartment Association said this was the first instance he had heard of city leaders seeking a withdrawal of his group's measure. At this point, there was no interest in pulling it back, he said.
"Over 15% of Mountain View’s voters signed the petition to reform Measure V to ensure that rent control does not disproportionately benefit wealthy, high income renters at the expense of the low and middle income renters who need housing assistance the most," Howard said in a statement. "We believe the voters should have a chance to weigh in on this measure."
Another important amendment added to the city's measure dealt with capital costs on apartments that could be passed through to tenants as rent increases. Under the current rules, landlords seeking a higher rent increase must file a petition and provide extensive documentation to show any capital improvements are necessary.
This process has been criticized for being too slow and onerous, and City Council members have sought a streamlined system to quickly give apartment owners compensation for important upgrades such as seismic retrofits or safety improvements. As part of this criteria, elected leaders also included environmental improvements, such as solar panels or electric car charging stations. On Tuesday night, a majority of the City Council agreed to make it so these expenses could also passed through as rent increases even if there was no cost benefit for tenants.
The expedited process to pass through costs to tenants was blasted by public speakers, who said the criteria had become too broad. It was just one more example of how tenants had little reason to support the measure, said former Councilman Lenny Siegel, now representing the Housing Justice Coalition.
"People know what's going on in this city; they know who dominates the City Council, who dominates the Rental Housing Committee," he said. "They don't trust any little loophole will stay a little loophole. It will become so big you can drive an apartment redevelopment through it."
In another move that irked tenant advocates, the City Council agreed the measure would allow apartment owners and property managers who don't reside in Mountain View to serve on the city's Rental Housing Committee, which administers the city's rent control policies.
The City Council also decided in a last-minute amendment to explicitly exclude mobile homes from the city's rental protections. For years, a coalition of mobile home residents have been urging city leaders to do something to restrict rampant rent increases by their mobile home park ownership. But it has remained unclear whether mobile homes should be covered under the city's rent control law, despite multiple lawsuits. City leaders have promised they will take up the issue at a study session in January.
The final language for the council's ballot measure to revise the local rent control laws was approved by the City Council in a 5-2 vote with Hicks and Ramirez opposed. If the measure is passed by voters in March, the law will take effect in September, or even sooner with council approval.