Calling it the wrong time and terrible optics, Mountain View's Rental Housing Committee declined Monday to consider ways to scale back the city's rent control law during the coronavirus pandemic.
The idea, proposed by committee member Julian Pardo de Zela earlier this month, was to figure out what parts of the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA) could be suspended when apartment vacancy rates get too high. But the proposal was met with fierce pushback by tenant advocates, who argued even exploring those ideas would be unconscionable at a time when renters are struggling to stay housed.
Speakers at the meeting said rent control has kept people housed during the pandemic and staved off displacement while COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the community. They warned that any erosion of the CSFRA would further disrupt the lives of vulnerable renters and could put people on the street.
"Just because you can do this doesn't mean that you should," said resident Eva Tang. "This is a horrible use of staff resources that could actually be going to help people as opposed to eliminating rent control at a time when people are losing their jobs, people are getting sick and going to the hospital and dying."
Under the CSFRA, the Rental Housing Committee is allowed to suspend part or all of the law in the event that vacancy rates in the city climb beyond 5%. Though the vacancy rate has rested between 4% and 5% since rent control passed, COVID-19 has since caused a surge in new vacancies. For rent-controlled apartments, the vacancy rate spiked from 4.4% prior to the pandemic to 9.3%.
Average rents for rent-controlled apartments, meanwhile, sank from $2,700 to $2,400, according to city data.
Pardo de Zela said there's a reason the committee is able to retool rent control when vacancy rates get too high, and that he worried about what the pandemic has done to the available housing stock in the city. Landlords have publicly stated they are reluctant to rent out vacant rent-controlled units because tenants could lock into a depressed rate, he said, which means less housing opportunities for renters and less income for landlords.
"They don't want to rent them right now because they might have a tenant for the long haul that they end up with at a very low base rent," Pardo de Zela said. "That's the kind of thing that harms everyone in Mountain View."
While Pardo de Zela was vague about what rent control rules he would want to suspend, he said his goal was not to harm renters or completely abolish rent control. He insisted that the committee has an obligation to explore its options when vacancy rates get too high, and that failing to do so would be an abdication of their responsibility to the public.
"We owe it to ourselves and to the public to figure out if there is something we could do right now, are there some aspects of the CSFRA that we could suspend to help Mountain View. And I do not think that is pro-landlord or pro-tenant sentiment," he said.
Speakers at the meeting sharply disagreed. Bruce England, speaking on behalf of the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, said the rules for suspending the CSFRA were meant for normal market fluctuations -- not extraordinary, temporary circumstances like COVID-19. The housing market will bounce back, he said, and trying to seize the moment and scale back rent control would pose an "unfair burden" on renters.
Others felt it was the latest attempt by committee members to attack rent control, using the pandemic and abnormal vacancy rates as a vehicle for subverting renter protections.
"The fact that this proposal even made it this far should not, but does, shock me," said resident Scott Hayden. "It's been the goal of landlords and real estate lobbies of Mountain View and California to abolish rent control ever since Measure V was passed, and now you're using a deadly plague to advance your radical, pro-profit, anti-human goal."
Committee member Matt Grunewald said it's "highly unlikely" that the Rental Housing Committee would -- or even could -- suspend the CSFRA in its entirety, but that suspending parts of the law could be a useful tool. He said the spike in vacancy rates could be the committee's chance to clean up some of the language in the law, which he said has had some unintended consequences that aren't necessarily bad for tenants.
"Right now this is just about exploration of what options we would have," Grunewald said.
But others said now is not the time to tinker with the CSFRA. Committee member Susyn Almond said she opposed even considering the committee's options, and that people in the community are frightened by the prospect of losing tenant protections. Nicole Haines-Livesay, while more willing to explore the committee's options, said the committee needs to be empathetic and understand that perception is reality.
"When you have a community outcry saying 'No, don't do this,' it just sounds like it's the wrong time," Haines-Livesay said.
Given the health orders and the need to shelter in place during the pandemic, committee chair Emily Ramos said she couldn't justify putting Pardo de Zela's proposal on the agenda. People are still getting rent increases even as the regional rental market tumbles and vacancy rates have shot up, she said, but at the very least they can fall back on rent caps under the CSFRA.
"I understand that you want to just start the process and see the 'what if,'" Ramos said. "The 'what if' terrifies people."