In a setback for Measure W, the Mountain View City Council's alternative to rent-control, council members voted narrowly on Tuesday to table a closely intertwined discussion on the city's tenant-relocation ordinance until after the November election. In effect, the delay means the city-sponsored Measure W will go before voters with ambiguity over how aggressively it will regulate the local rental housing market.
In a tense turnaround that drew gasps from the audience, the council majority that had supported Measure W fell apart in a 4-3 vote to put off a planned update of city's Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, with Mayor Pat Showalter, John McAlister and Chris Clark opposed.
The ordinance, which has been in effect since 2010, is referenced numerous times in Measure W to set the rules for how landlords could circumvent eviction protections by paying a fine to ousted low-income tenants.
The dilemma that played out on Tuesday night came about as a result of the hasty efforts by the council majority to draft an alternative to Measure V, a citizen-backed rent control initiative they criticized for being too inflexible and costly. In their desire to craft a milder version of rent control, the council majority took the eviction-protection language in Measure V and included a loophole that would allow landlords to pay a one-time displacement fee to tenants who were being evicted without "just cause."
The swing vote of the night was Councilman Mike Kasperzak, a Measure W supporter who nonetheless sided with the measure's opponents. Kasperzak explained that he was concerned that making hurried changes to a city program would create unknown ramifications even if both ballot initiatives failed.
"This is a large expansion of the program which I'm not prepared for," he said. "I want the voters who favor rent control to have two options, but this isn't my choice."
Other council supporters were clearly distraught that Measure W would go before voters with some major policy holes in its language.
Measure W points to the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance to set the rules for the penalty landlords must pay tenants being evicted without just cause, but City Attorney Jannie Quinn pointed out to council members that the policy needed a significant overhaul in order to work in tandem with W. The city last updated that program in 2014, and it currently affects landlords only if they displace four or more households within a year. Households are eligible only if they earn less than 80 percent of the local median income (currently about $85,000 for a family of four).
In her staff report, Quinn laid out a series of questions the council needed to answer to determine which tenants and apartments would be eligible for the displacement fee. The city's Environmental Planning Commission reviewed the update earlier this month and recommended making all tenants eligible for displacement payments, even if only one household is evicted.
Such changes would represent a significant expansion of the program, and Quinn said the city wouldn't know how much the program would cost until early 2017. Any expansion would likely require more staffing to enforce its provisions, she said. The costs would depend upon the council's decision, but she said city staff were planning to recoup those expenses by putting a surcharge on any relocation fees paid by landlords.
The complexity of the questions they were being asked came as a surprise to council members, who said they had thought it would be relatively simple to align the relocation fees with the language of Measure W.
Kasperzak said he felt he was being forced into a corner, asked to rewrite the tenant-relocation rules on the shaky possibility that Measure W would pass. In agreement, Councilman Ken Rosenberg quizzed his colleagues on whether Measure W actually stood a chance of being approved by voters.
"Are you going to actively campaign for this?" Rosenberg said. "I think Measure V might have a chance, but I think Measure W does not."
In response, Councilman Chris Clark began describing his efforts to advocate for Measure W, but he was quickly cut off by City Manager Dan Rich, who reminded the council they were prohibited from discussing political campaigns at a public meeting.
Quinn suggested the council could make the expansion of the tenant relocation ordinance contingent on Measure W passing, but this idea found little support among the council. It became clear the council members had little enthusiasm for rejiggering a complex policy, and Quinn tried to remind them that Measure W contained various blanks that needed to be filled. Until the council updated the tenant relocation ordinance, Measure W would essentially have the same just-cause eviction protections as Measure V, she said.
Over warnings from other council members, Rosenberg made a motion to table the discussion until after the election, explaining that they needed more time to discuss any changes.
The council's main supporters of Measure W -- Clark, McAlister and Showalter -- were emphatic that the city needed to give voters specifics on what their initiative would do. Clark proposed going forward with the ordinance changes, but timing the second reading for after the election.
All three voted against tabling the measure, but they ultimately came up short.
"I'm disappointed ... we wanted to do something fair as an alternative," McAlister said. "We made a commitment, but now it doesn't look like we're going to do it."
Following the meeting, the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, the main proponents of competing Measure V, seized on the council's inaction as evidence that city's alternative was never fully thought through.
"When the City Council put Measure W on the ballot, they acknowledged that it was half-baked, and promised to finish the job before the election," said Juliet Brodie, co-author of Measure V. "It's honestly a mess, and I don't know how they can ask voters to support Measure W when they are essentially promising to change its meaning immediately after the election.”
If Measure W passes, Quinn said the City Council could take up a new discussion to update the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance before the end of the year.