Perhaps the most consequential choice in this election cycle, Mountain View voters will decide between competing ballot initiatives that seek to curb the runaway rental market -- or choose to reject them both.
Backers of Measure V and those of Measure W claim that their proposed law offers the best plan for protecting tenants against baseless rent hikes and evictions.
On the Measure W side is the City Council majority. They wrote and structured Measure W as an ordinance, giving the council flexibility to amend it in future years with a five-member supermajority. Meanwhile, Measure V sponsors -- who formed the Mountain View Tenants Coalition -- argue that rent restrictions are too important to be trusted to the whims of elected leaders. Their initiative would be written into the city charter, making it amendable only through another popular vote in an election.
The dueling proposals have a complicated back story. More than a year ago, a groundswell of hundreds of Mountain View tenants and advocates began making regular appearances at public meetings, demanding that the city address the rising rental costs that were displacing low-income tenants. They pointed to statistics showing that average rents in the city had increased by 80 percent since 2009.
After months of discussions, city staff in March presented what they thought would be a palatable answer -- a complex mediation program designed to settle disputes between landlords and tenants. But the council majority at the last moment gutted formal rent restrictions contained in the proposed ordinance, in effect making it entirely voluntary for landlords to lessen rent increases or address many other tenants' concerns.
In response, tenant advocates turned their energy toward raising support for a rent-control initiative, what later became Measure V. In a surprise to council members, the Tenants Coalition gathered some 7,300 signatures to force the measure onto the ballot.
Fearing Measure V could pass and force the city into a plan they found unacceptable, council members called a special meeting in the final days before the deadline to submit items for the ballot. They discussed putting their own measure before voters as an alternative and in the end dusted off the binding arbitration system they had earlier rejected to include in their own ballot measure.
The rent restrictions in both measures would affect only apartments built before 1995, due to provisions of the state Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. Single-family homes, condominiums, duplexes and granny units would also be exempted from the measures.
In recent days, the Voice editorial staff met with advocacy groups for both measures to get a better understanding of the merits of each proposal.
While opponents will certainly disagree, the Mountain View Tenants Coalition describe their proposal as the more moderate, transparent and inexpensive of the two options before voters.
Measure V calls for creating a new five-person rental-housing committee, appointed by the City Council, that would be in charge of determining the permitted rent adjustments each year and ruling on tenant-landlord disputes.
Measure V stipulates that rent increases must be based on the Consumer Price Index of the Bay Area; the range of permitted increase would be a minimum of 2 percent and a maximum of 5 percent in any year. The logic here, tenants advocates say, is to ensure that any rent increases be linked to the rising income levels of tenants.
Measure V's cost if enacted is not clear. Similar programs established in cities across California range in cost from $3 a month to $12 a month per apartment unit. That cost would depend mainly on how much staffing is needed to aid the rental committee, update the city's website and perform public outreach.
Tenants Coalition members couldn't specify how many staff members would be needed, but they say the rental committee would have a vested interest in keeping staff at a minimal level since the costs would eventually be reflected in tenants' rents.
Measure V proponents fiercely dispute the notion that their proposal would be a magnet for lawsuits from disgruntled landlords, setting up the city of Mountain View for significant liability. Juliet Brodie, a Stanford law professor who helped author the measure, said it was written specifically to comply with state law.
"Measure V is squarely constitutional," she said. "I don't think there's a fair argument that could be made that a frontal attack on Measure V could survive."
More than anything else, opponents have criticized the initiative for being written as a charter amendment, making its provisions inalterable except at the ballot box. But advocates say this was intentional -- a strategy to shield the rent-control policies from risk every time a new council takes office. If the City Council wanted flexibility to tweak rent-control provisions, it should have passed an effective ordinance earlier this year, Measure V advocates say.
"Over the last year, we've seen a City Council that's been intransigent and refusing to work with us," said Tenants Coalition spokesman Evan Ortiz. "We took the risk of a charter amendment because we felt this was important and the only way to move forward to enshrine the will of the people."
The Tenants Coalition points out that voters in East Palo Alto approved amending its rent-control program in 2010, and residents are considering another set of changes this election.
An unanswered question on Measure V is whether its provisions would be applied to Mountain View's mobile home residents. Brodie and other attorneys representing the Tenants Coalition say their measure was written with that possibility in mind, although it isn't explicitly included in the ballot language. It would be up to the rental-housing committee to decide whether to extend those protections to mobile homes. But going that route would likely tempt a lawsuit from mobile-home park owners, they admit.
"As a lawyer, I can make arguments on both sides on this," Brodie said. "We did what other cities have done: We left language that can be argued both ways to let the issue evolve through rental-housing-committee regulation."
One important piece of the Measure V package is the inclusion of just-cause eviction protections, a set of specific criteria for when landlords can evict tenants, such as failure to pay, causing a nuisance or criminal activity. Landlords would be still allowed to demolish and redevelop their properties so long as they get permits from the city and give tenants first dibs on any newly rebuilt apartment at the location.
Measure V proponents reject the argument that rent control will result in slums by giving landlords little incentive to maintain properties. They point out that a recent survey by Mountain View's Code Enforcement division found that about 70 percent of apartments already have at least one violation. Under the current system, tenants find themselves at risk if they complain about code violations since they can be evicted without cause, they say. Under Measure V, landlords who let their properties deteriorate run the risk of being brought before the rental-housing committee.
The committee behind Measure W includes some familiar faces -- it's basically the Mountain View City Council.
Mayor Pat Showalter along with councilmen John McAlister, Chris Clark and Mike Kasperzak agreed to put their preferred version of rent control forward as a way to offer an alternative to a ballot initiative they describe as a severe overreach by tenants' advocates.
In contrast to the price caps typically employed by rent control, Measure W would build on the city's Rental Housing Dispute Resolution Program, a multi-tiered mediation program modeled on a similar initiative in city of Los Gatos for settling disputes between landlords and tenants.
The ballot measure would allow disputes that remain unresolved to go before arbitrators from the nonprofit firm Project Sentinel. Binding arbitration would be mandatory only if a tenant's rent increase exceeded 5 percent. The arbitrators would have legal authority to rule on unreasonable rent increases, maintenance problems or other issues. If the arbitrators weren't fulfilling their duty properly, council members pointed out, the city can easily replace them with a new firm.
The cost of the program remains unclear. In interviews with the Voice council members say they expect the cost to be between $15 and $17 per year for each apartment unit. But city staff last month indicated the cost of expanding various city programs wouldn't be known until early next year.
Council members -- some of whom previously voted down a similar binding-arbitration system -- say they will limit their ability to tweak Measure W if it passes. The measure stipulates the council must wait two years to amend its provisions, and this would require a five-vote super-majority.
Certain aspects of Measure W contain ambiguity at this time. In writing their measure, the council majority opted to include an exemption to just-cause eviction protections by allowing landlords to pay a one-time displacement fee to tenants evicted without cause. The council made that change with the idea they would update the city's Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance to specify when this displacement fee would have to be paid.
But a late-night meeting to update that tenant-relocation ordinance fell into disarray last month, and the City Council voted to table the decision. That left Measure W in some uncertainty -- if it passes, then at some point after the election the council intends to modify the ordinance, possibly increasing the amount of money ousted tenants are eligible to receive. As it stands now, the relocation ordinance requires landlords to pay evicted tenants three months of market-rate rent at a comparable apartment, plus an extra $3,000 if the tenants have children or special needs.
Until the council revises its tenant-relocation ordinance, Measure W will essentially have just-cause eviction protections, according to the city attorney.
Nevertheless, council members are adamant their proposal would be more palatable to property owners and developers in Mountain View. They note that their measure would allow property owners to pass through most capital costs of property improvements to their tenants.
"I don't believe in rent control, but the reason I support (Measure W) is I believe voters may want to have their say in creating some form of rental protection," Kasperzak said. "We needed to give them a viable alternative to Measure V."
Email Mark Noack at [email protected]