Just days away from implementation, Mountain View's voter-approved rent-control ordinance, Measure V, is in danger of being challenged and potentially halted by a lawsuit expected to be filed next week by landlord advocates.
In a letter sent to local property owners in recent days, the California Apartment Association indicated that its lawyers are preparing a multi-pronged lawsuit seeking to overturn the charter amendment, passed by voters last month.
It was the clearest signal so far from an organization that has repeatedly warned it would sue the city if the rent-control law was enacted.
The letter lays out 10 potential legal grounds to wage a courtroom battle against the rent-control provisions. The association's arguments take aim at the measure's provisions for a rent rollback, a temporary freeze on rent increases, and a series of "vague and ambiguous" requirements imposed on landlords.
"While CAA respects the initiative petition process, the charter amendment resulting from Measure V is unconstitutional in many respects and, therefore, unenforceable," the CAA letter asserts.
No suit had been filed as of today (Dec. 16), but the threat of a legal challenge has already rattled city officials. After receiving the letter, the Mountain View City Council hastily assembled on Friday morning for a closed-door meeting to discuss unspecified pending litigation. In interviews with the Voice, city officials left little room for doubt that the meeting was focused squarely on the threat of a lawsuit against Measure V.
"We're anticipating a legal challenge, but it hasn't been served yet," explained City Attorney Jannie Quinn. "It's a lot of theorizing at this point -- they're going to challenge it; they're going to claim it's unconstitutional, but we don't know how their arguments are going to be formulated."
What this means for apartment renters and landlords in Mountain View is anyone's guess at this point. The charter amendment is set to take effect on Dec. 23, including a sweeping rollback of rents on thousands of apartments to October 2015 rates. CAA attorneys could request a judge to issue some type of restraining order to bar this rollback or other provisions set to take immediate effect.
The uncertainty of a potential lawsuit has been hanging over city officials in recent days as they worked to begin implementing Measure V. In an informational session on Thursday night, officials with Project Sentinel, the city's housing-mediation contractor, repeatedly warned tenants that their advice could be rendered invalid if a lawsuit ended up delaying various provisions.
Measure V coasted to victory on election night with more than 53.4 percent of the vote, but the initiative had far less support among elected leaders. Six out of the seven Mountain View council members opposed the measure, most of them instead backing a milder alternative they added to the November ballot after Measure V qualified for the ballot.
Following the election, however, most council members voted to immediately enact a section of Measure V calling for just-cause protections in order to prevent wide-scale evictions before the charter amendment takes effect.
Mountain View is not obligated to defend Measure V if a lawsuit were filed, Quinn said. If a lawsuit were filed, city leaders would decide in a closed-session vote whether to defend the law. That vote would have to be reported out to the public, she said.
Across the board, city officials said their response would depend on the details of the lawsuit. Trying to comment at this time would be speculation, said Mayor Pat Showalter.
"We're going to see how this unfolds -- I'll be very interested to see what happens," she said. "We'll do the best we can."
For months, proponents of Measure V have maintained that rent-control laws and eviction protections have been upheld in California courts as legally sound. The Mountain View Tenants Coalition, which put Measure V on the ballot, could intervene to help defend the law, suggested spokeswoman Juliet Brodie.
"We believe 100 percent in the validity of Measure V," she said. "We're all going to have to wait and see what they do, and we'll respond accordingly."
Measure V was written with a so-called "severability" clause designed to prevent the charter amendment from being thrown out entirely if a specific provision is found to be flawed in court. CAA attorneys could still mount a wholesale attack against the measure, Brodie said.
"The city has an obligation to defend the measure unless our attorneys consider it unconstitutional," said Councilman Lenny Siegel, the charter amendment's lone supporter on the council. "The record across California for decades has been that similar laws covering millions of people are constitutional."
The California Apartment Association could not be reached on Friday.