A majority of the Mountain View City Council backed plans for an alternate rent-control ordinance as a challenge to a citizen-backed measure they described as vague and inflexible.
In a 4-2 vote at a special meeting held July 14, with Councilman John Inks absent, the council directed staff to draw up a ballot measure based largely on a binding-arbitration program it had rejected earlier this year.
The City Council will review the measure at a special meeting on Aug. 9 for a final vote that will determine whether it's put on the Nov. 8 ballot. If the measure is approved, November's election could get complicated for voters, with two complex proposals promising to regulate Mountain View's runaway apartment rents.
Last week's meeting was a strange scene in many ways. It was a rare special meeting called in the middle of the council's summer recess. Due to City Hall renovations, the meeting was relocated from the Council Chambers to the second stage of the Performing Arts Center, giving the council deliberations the appearance of a community theater production.
The packed meeting, which stretched past midnight, included dozens of children from a local computer camp who were typing away at Java code during the deliberations.
It was also odd in other ways. That very day enough signatures signatures were validated by the city clerk to place on the ballot the citizen-backed rent-control measure, dubbed the "Community Stabilization and Fair Rent initiative." That measure, authored by the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, had been circulating for months, but at the eleventh hour, the mayor called the special meeting to draft a hasty alternative measure. In the end, three of the four supporters of the alternative measure #150; except Mayor Pat Showalter #150; essentially voted to support a ballot measure that looked a lot like a binding arbitration provision they'd voted down just a few months earlier.
Using a line of argument echoed by his fellow supporters, Councilman Mike Kasperzak said he opposed rent control but nevertheless felt that a council-backed proposal deserved a public vote. He admitted that he thought the citizen-backed rent control measure was going to fall short in collecting signatures.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," he said when asked why he was now backing a rent-control plan. Kasperzak referred to polls that he later explained indicated that Mountain View voters wanted to pass something to address the housing crisis.
"I want to see if there's a way to provide some rental protection, and I think it's incumbent on us to give (voters) an alternative," he said. "If you trust the voters to do the right thing, you have to trust them to do it in all situations, and you can't say they're easily confused."
But the premise of the last-minute meeting and the council's new-found interest in bringing rent control to a public vote was called into question by numerous public speakers, many of whom waved placards and signs reading "political dirty trick."
"When two similar measures appear on the ballot, it dooms both of them," said Michael Kahan, a signature-gatherer with the tenants' coalition. "I'm concerned this might be a simple ploy to undermine our efforts."
The citizen-backed ballot measure calls for a rent-cap system that would essentially limit annual increases to the rate of inflation, as determined by the Bay Area Consumer Price Index. Overseeing this process would be a new rental-housing committee, a five-member panel appointed by the council that would be in charge of setting allowable rents or making new regulations. Landlords and tenants could petition the committee to make exceptions for special circumstances.
The measure also includes "just-cause eviction" protections that would set criteria for when landlords can evict tenants, such as failure to pay, causing a nuisance or criminal activity.
Amending city's charter
For the council, the most controversial aspect of the tenants' coalition measure is that it is written as a city charter amendment. That means, if passed, its provisions would be enshrined in the city charter, making them irrevocable unless amended at the ballot box.
It would be as if "Obamacare were added to the Constitution," as Kasperzak put it.
"Any council should take a charter amendment very seriously," said Councilman Chris Clark. "This is the city's constitution and it should be amended sparingly."
But members of the tenants coalition pointed out they had been urging the city for nearly a year to take stronger action to prevent Mountain View renters from being displaced. The citizen-backed initiative was drafted as a charter amendment because other cities saw rental restrictions immediately overturned once the political winds had changed, said Juliet Brodie, director of the Stanford Law Clinic and an adviser to the Tenants Coalition.
Compared with other rent-control proposals, she said, her group's proposal was "moderate" for having a higher cap on rent increases and language to deactivate its policies if too many apartments became vacant.
"Through hook or crook, action or inaction, the people of Mountain View are going to be asked to vote on this charter amendment," Brodie said. "It's our position that a competing measure on the ballot passed in haste will only divide the vote."
Members of the California Apartment Association were present at the July 14 meeting, but they did not speak at it.
Contacted after the meeting, CAA Vice President Josh Howard told the Voice that his organization is strongly opposed to any effort to embed rent-control provisions in a city charter. Yet his group would also likely come out against any binding-arbitration program put forward by the city, he said.
"It's difficult to comment on a ballot measure that's still being drafted," Howard said. "We do consider binding arbitration a form of rent control, and we're very concerned about any rent-control measure, whether it's before the council or on the ballot."
At the outset of the meeting, Mayor Showalter proposed taking the ballot language of the tenant coalition's measure and inserting it into a separate measure written as a city ordinance. That change would allow future councils to tweak the language based on changing circumstances or unintended consequences, she said.
But it quickly became apparent that other council members had irreconcilable differences with the citizen-backed measure. In a straw vote, only Showalter supported the idea of borrowing its language.
Meanwhile, other members criticized the tenant group's measure for vague language that could leave the city on the hook for costs and liabilities. Kasperzak pointed out the measure's proposed rental committee could hire its own staff and make its own expenditures, but the city would be required to defend its actions from any legal challenges.
A tenuous consensus instead backed the idea of dusting off a previous staff proposal of creating a multi-tiered binding-arbitration system. In March, the council approved a version of this program, but they gutted its centerpiece: an independent mediator who could determine binding outcomes to landlord-tenant disputes. Facing heavy opposition from landlord groups, the council weakened the language so that mediators could only make suggestions to resolve disputes.
Showalter, along with council members Chris Clark, John McAlister, and Kasperzak, voted in support of drafting a binding-arbitration measure. They specified that the measure should have a 5 percent cap on rent increases to trigger mediation and that landlords could "bank" rent increases to allow higher rent hikes to account for prior years with no increases. The council's measure would also include "just cause" eviction protections identical to those in the tenant coalition's measure.
Amendments to the ordinance, they stipulated, could be made only by a five-vote council supermajority.
"Voters deserve an alternative," Clark said, adding that he would campaign for the city's measure. While he opposed its provisions, he said, he would tell voters that if they were going to vote for a rent-control initiative, then the city's measure was the one to support.
The council opponents, Lenny Siegel and Ken Rosenberg, became increasingly frustrated with their colleagues as the meeting wore on. Voters already had a choice in this election, Siegel reminded them: They could simply vote down the citizen-backed measure if they thought it was too flawed. He pointed out that a recent survey found that many people living out of their cars in Mountain View cited recent rent increases as the top reason for how they became homeless.
"This is going to confuse voters. I can almost guarantee you that both (measures) will go down in defeat," Siegel said. "I don't know how you'd tell someone, 'vote for this one, but not this one.'"
Rosenberg, an opponent of rent control, complained that his colleagues were being insincere and inconsistent by backing a measure they didn't actually support.
"If the council is going to put something on the ballot, we have to support it, and then we're going against the will of our residents," he said. "Democracy trumps policy, and the (tenants' coalition) has done the hard work."
After a series of 4-2 straw votes, the council gave direction to the city attorney to draft an ordinance that will be reviewed on Aug. 9 for a final decision.
In the event that both measures receive enough votes to pass, the citizen-backed charter amendment would supersede the council-backed measure, according to the city attorney.