Following weeks of public outcry on rising rents, Mountain View leaders gave a clear signal Monday they would not consider controversial ideas such as capping rents or imposing "just-cause" eviction rules. Instead, the council majority backed a compromise package of programs to expand tenants' rights while continuing to study the problem.
The study session, held before a capacity crowd at the Senior Center Oct. 19, was a much-awaited occasion for city leaders to finally weigh in on what many describe as a housing crisis in Mountain View. In recent weeks, tenants and their advocates have protested that landlords and property owners were abusing a largely unregulated rental market to recklessly jack-up rents. They urged the council to pass an immediate moratorium on rent increases and to consider new tenant protections along with a rent-stabilization program.
But Monday seemed to mark the chance for the other side to take initiative. Speaking against new rental-market regulations were a large showing of landlords, realtors and their advocates from throughout the Bay Area, many of them wearing lapel stickers reading "I provide housing & jobs." A line of speakers issued a grim warning to city leaders that rent regulation and just-cause ordinances would create conditions that would be exploited by the worst kind of tenants. Such protections were a recipe for "pitbulls, pythons and pedophiles", warned one San Francisco real estate agent; rent control was an invitation for "slumlords," added a San Jose real estate agent.
What seemed to resonate most for city leaders was the warning that rent stabilization and just-cause protections wouldn't actually solve the immediate local housing problem.
"Rent control will have little impact in relieving renters from high-market rents," warned Joshua Howard, vice president of the California Apartment Association and one of the evening's featured panelists. "These are the same solutions that gentrified San Francisco, Santa Monica and Berkeley. We would do well to not make a bad situation worse."
That line of argument was persuasive for five out of the seven council members. Councilman Chris Clark conceded that such programs might provide quick relief, but those benefits would soon be enjoyed only by long-term tenants, he said.
"To me, rent stabilization is the biggest weapon in the tool shed. You don't go from free market to your biggest weapon in one fell swoop," Clark said. "When there's bleeding, you don't go and cut off the limb."
But other cities that passed rent regulations didn't experience such doomsday scenarios, said Melissa Morris, an attorney with the Fair Housing Law Project. As passed by several other Bay Area cities, rent stabilization would cap rent increases to about 2 percent per year while leaving exceptions for landlords to invest in property improvements.
"What (rent stabilization) is good at is protecting tenants from displacement by preventing large increases that outstrip tenants' ability to pay it," she said. "I would call on Mountain View to be a leader. The people who live in this city have called on the council to do something, and other cities may follow suit."
After four hours of public speakers and expert testimony, the council seemed visibly exhausted as the discussion finally came back to members for direction on how to proceed. Council members Lenny Siegel and Pat Showalter both made a case for asking staff to further investigate rent stabilization and just-cause tenant protections. While staff studied such programs, they wanted to accede to the tenants' plea for a temporary moratorium on future rent increases. If the city didn't investigate a sound way to regulate rents, then the likely alternative would be for housing advocates to force the issue forward through a voter initiative, Siegel warned.
"Whatever we come up with will be imperfect, but taking action with teeth is better than taking no action," Siegel said.
But those measures were characterized as too risky even for further study by other council members. Councilmen Ken Rosenberg and Mike Kasperzak both described rent stabilization as a "flawed" policy that they simply didn't trust. On the far end of the spectrum, Councilman John Inks cast the issue as a simple matter of free-market economics.
"There's people who want to stay in this community where they can't afford it," he said. "I don't think anyone has a right to live in a certain area."
Through much back and forth, a consensus emerged through a straw vote for a package of less onerous tenant protections and future measures. Those included a future urgency ordinance that would force landlords to offer tenants longer term leases for six or 12 months as well as a minimum of 90 days notice for any rent increases. For future study the council majority also backed investigating some type of mandatory mediation program for tenants' grievances that would be triggered by criteria that would be determined later.
In addition, city staff would also look into providing new funding for the Community Services Agency to help provide emergency relief for renters in danger of being displaced.
Finally, the council also came up an idea on the fly to create some kind of data collection program that would try to gather better information on rent increases and evictions.
Siegel and Showalter both denounced their colleagues' proposal as misguided.
"It looks like we're heading down the wrong path," Siegel said. "I can count the votes, but I don't think this is the end of the issue."