While the pace of rent hikes in Mountain View has led to calls for rent control from some community leaders and middle class families, City Council candidates are favoring long-terms plans for increasing housing supply instead of the type of rent control ordinances in place in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Los Gatos, San Jose and East Palo Alto.
In recent interviews, candidates expressed concerns with voting in rent control as some Bay Area cities did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Voters in Mountain View nearly instituted rent control at the time, when California renters were outraged at not receiving the savings in rent promised to them by proponents of Proposition 13 -- which limits property tax increases -- but instead saw major rent increases.
Mountain View's population is more than 60 percent renters who face a volatile rental market thanks to Silicon Valley's boom-and-bust job growth. Currently, all the members of the City Council are homeowners, but among the nine candidates seeking election to three open seats in November, three are renters.
"That's the hard one for me," said candidate Lenny Siegel, who helped organize campaigns for rent control ordinances in 1978, 1979 and 1980-81 in Mountain View.
"The problem is under current state law, under 'vacancy decontrol,' rent control doesn't work very well, and it is very hard to devise a good rent control law," he said, referring to a provision of a 1995 state law that allows rents to rise to market levels whenever a unit becomes vacant. "The problem for me is it divides the people I'm organizing and is not long-term solution. I wouldn't rule out supporting it and I have not opposed it, but the reality is I don't think it will pass. And talking about it undermines efforts to increase housing supply."
Candidate Ken Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed "housing advocate," cautioned against rent control.
"The situation we have right now is increasingly sad, but rent control will not solve the problem," Rosenberg said. Under state law, rents will always go to market levels, he said.
"A landlord has no incentive to maintain the apartment, and there's no incentive to build new apartments, so housing stock goes down. (When housing is built), instead of apartments, it's condos. It increases the cost of housing for everybody else."
"Having said that, it's so sad what is happening." Rosenberg said, adding that he had met a Mountain View woman who said that 100 percent of her paycheck goes to pay her rent. He said he asked her, "How on earth do you survive?"
"She eats at the restaurant where she works and has friends that subsidize her existence," Rosenberg said.
Candidate Margaret Capriles said her opposition to rent control was mostly because it would mean apartments would fall into disrepair.
"I have looked a lot into that and have kept track of what was going on in San Francisco," Capriles said. "You can see readily there that it is a broken system. Often when you impose rent control it is a disincentive to landlords to keep properties up. It is only applied to older housing (state law exempts homes built after 1995 from rent control), and they are falling into disrepair. Soon you've got a very slummy neighborhood -- it doesn't work."
Candidate Lisa Matichak said the possibility of rent control would cause landlords to raise rents quickly before it took effect. Even if state law exempts new apartments from rent control, she says a local ordinance would create concern that at some point those units "could be under rent control."
"It might also slow down or potentially halt the construction of new units, which is the exact opposite of what we are looking for," Matichak said.
The three renters in the race, Ellen Kamei, Mercedes Salem and Jim Neal, aren't pushing for rent control either.
"That's a tough issue," Kamei said. "The idea of rent control is a noble one. Even in San Francisco, they have rent control and they still have an issue with affordable housing. I'm not sure that it is the answer. It's not a panacea."
As a renter it may sound counter-intuitive to say rent control is not needed, said Neal. "I rented several times in San Francisco and San Francisco still has some of the highest rents in the country, even with rent control. It does work for a minority of people. The minute you move then you pay whatever market rent is. It is a stop-gap solution."
"I don't think rent control is going to fly in Mountain View," Salem said, adding that she hasn't heard residents calling for it. "They have been telling me, 'I want housing.'"
Candidate Pat Showalter said she isn't necessarily for rent control. "We do need to study what we might do to slow the growth of rent and have assistance programs for people being displaced," she said.
Candidate Greg Unangst said rent control deserves a community-wide discussion as has been done for raising the minimum wage in Mountain View. He said he prefers the terms "rent stabilization."
Renters face an "extremely volatile" situation, Unangst said. "They are completely at the mercy of landlords and there's no limits to rent increases. Homeowners are protected by Prop. 13 from tax increases, but renters don't have any protection."
In some cases, Unangst said rents were rising by 15 to 20 percent in a year. "(People are) concerned about not being able to make the next increase, where are they going to go?" He said he met one resident in that situation. "She's 89 and has no idea where to go," he said.
As for putting a burden on landlords, Unangst said it "really depends on the details on how it would be implemented. A lot of subtleties have to be addressed -- it has to be carefully written, so landlords have rights as well as do renters. It's not as simple as it looks on the surface but it can be done. It needs to be discussed."
Former Mountain View mayor and state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber said residents who want rent control should be ready for the "mother of all political battles" and should follow the campaign money in this year's council election. Landlords raised what was then the large sum of $104,000 to defeat one of the two efforts to institute rent control in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Mountain View, while proponents raised only a few thousand dollars.
Siegel said another difficulty back then was that many renters who initially supported rent control were forced out of Mountain View by rising rents before the measures made it onto the ballot. Many of their signatures, required to place the measure on the ballot, were found to be invalid because they'd moved, causing the first measure to be delayed for over a year, Siegel said. Landlord groups paid for an all-out blitz against the proposed rent control measures, which included newspaper ads with pictures of friendly looking residents being quoted in their opposition to rent control.
The California Apartment Association has carried on that opposition as a top contributor to Mountain View City Council election campaigns.
Rent control has been around long enough that ways have been devised to fix many of the perceived shortcomings, said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, one of the only organizations that advocates for tenants on the state level.
"Rent control laws are founded on the idea that landlords can still make reasonable profits without being given the freedom to charge unlimited rents," Preston said.
Some cities allow landlords to charge renters for the costs of upkeep on their buildings, called "pass through" charges. "Just cause" provisions prevent landlords from unjustly booting out tenants to raise rents as high as they'd like under state law, such as those passed a few years ago by Oakland. And rent control boards have been created in some cities to make the call when there are problems, and to adjust allowable rent increases if they aren't tied to the Consumer Price Index or set to a fixed periodic limit, such as San Jose's 8 percent a year (or 21 percent if the rent hasn't been raised in the last 24 months).
Preston said a major obstacle to rent control is state law, namely the Costa Hawkins Act of 1995, which exempts single-family homes, condos and apartments built after 1995 from rent control laws. It also allows landlords to charge unlimited rents whenever a unit becomes vacant, called "vacancy decontrol."
Rent control is "absolutely essential, as we see in areas like Mountain View, where the rents are getting completely out of control and unaffordable to everyone except people with the highest income," Preston said. "The Realtors and apartment associations will always claim these kinds of regulations will pose an undue burden on them, but the evidence doesn't really show that."
Joshua Howard of the California Apartment Association, had the opposite view.
"Rent control is an old idea that has repeatedly proven to have not really helped anything," Howard said. "It has a negative effect on the supply of housing and quality of housing. It leads to the deterioration of existing housing stock. It provides no incentive for rental owners to invest in their property and it is a disincentive to developers to build."
Howard says the solution is for people to support housing growth, which has been difficult for many residents of Mountain View as they see nothing but luxury apartments going up. Howard says those new apartments will relieve pressure on the housing market and hold down rents on older homes -- a widely held sentiment among this year's City Council candidates.
"Our region needs to see housing as something to sustain our economic growth," Howard said. "As we continue to hire enough people in the Valley we need to make sure there is enough housing for everyone by reducing (development) fees, allowing higher densities in key locations and speeding up the entitlement process."