In Mountain View, some critics see a case of the fox guarding the henhouse at the city's Rental Housing Committee, the panel tasked with implementing the city's voter-approved rent control program. In recent days, criticism has been mounting against Rental Housing Committee member Tom Means for penning an economic study portraying rent control as a misguided policy that brings "more harm than good."
Means wrote the study last month as a paid consultant hired by the San Mateo County Association of Realtors (SAMCAR) for a campaign opposing a rent-control measure, similar to Mountain View's, being proposed for the city of Pacifica.
For advocates of the city's rent control program, Means' paid work against another city's rent-control measure calls into question his suitability and impartiality when it comes to implementing Mountain View's rent regulations. How can someone ideologically opposed to rent control be tasked with enforcing it, asked Juliet Brodie, a Stanford Community Law Clinic professor who co-authored Mountain View's Measure V, approved last November.
"From a good government perspective, it doesn't make any sense for a person who opposes the purpose of regulation to be in charge of implementing that regulatory regime," she said. "It makes one wonder why he applied to be on the Rental Housing Committee, if not to essentially prevent its successful implementation."
Means' political work in Pacifica came to light in campaign finance reports filed last month by a SAMCAR political arm, the Pacifica Coalition for Housing Equality. So far, the political group has raised more than $300,000 for an opposition campaign to defeat a rent-control measure in Pacifica that is largely modeled on Mountain View's program. Means is listed as a paid consultant in the group's campaign reports.
In an interview with the Voice, Means said he was paid a total of $1,500 for his work for SAMCAR. The contract work came about after he was contacted by SAMCAR and asked to summarize his opinions on rent control in a report, he said.
He ended up producing a 10-page study that rehashes many arguments familiar to Mountain View voters during the November election. Rent control policies have a poor history of helping struggling low-income families, Means said, suggesting that wealthy renters will come out on top. Landlords would lose any incentive to upgrade their rental properties, and many will resort to selling or redeveloping their apartments to recoup their investment. He concludes that the real culprit behind rising rental costs is the lack of supply spurred by sluggish housing growth.
In an interview, Means defended his report, saying it was in line with his job as a San Jose State University economics professor to study the rental market.
"I don't think there's anything controversial about what I said, except among people who aren't trained," he said. "The fact that I'm opposed to price controls shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone."
Means' stance has never been a secret. As a libertarian who champions free-market principles, he wrote an op-ed piece in the Voice prior to last year's election, laying out his case for why Measure V would be a bad policy for Mountain View. That resistance was shared by nearly all the members of the City Council, but a majority of voters felt differently, and passed the measure.
Means submitted an application just a few weeks later for one of the five seats on the Rental Housing Committee and was picked by council members for the job over about 20 other applicants.
Means was given credit for his eight years on the City Council, which council members said would be valuable experience for helping steer the fledgling committee through a gauntlet of policy decisions. He was viewed as a compromise appointee, helping to balance out the political leanings. Since some council members insisted on bringing on candidates who actively campaigned for rent control, it felt appropriate to have others like Means who would be more skeptical, said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga.
"We could have appointed five members who had no involvement in the Measure V campaign (for or against) if we wanted impartiality, and I was open to that direction," Abe-Koga told the Voice via email. "In regards to impartiality, I don't think that was the expectation of the RHC candidates."
However, many rent-control proponents made it clear they saw the council members' desire for "balance" as an attempt to undermine a citizen-led measure they opposed. Complaints about Means' presence on the committee have persisted.
Lenny Siegel, the lone council member who supported Measure V, recalled how Means had promised during his application interviews that he would do his best to make Measure V work effectively.
"Now I'm not sure if that's the approach he's taking," Siegel said. "He's clearly being ideologically consistent, but I'm not sure that he's helping to create a program that's actually helping people."
In the months since joining the Rental Housing Committee, Means has dominated many of the crucial policy discussions. Often bringing his economics pedigree into talks, he has sometimes sparred with the city's risk-averse staff and consultants on drafting essential components of the rent-control program. The city's team frequently aimed for legal cover by modeling Mountain View's program after other rent-stabilized cities; but Means was inclined to craft more precise methods to tie the program more closely to what he sees as the housing market's realities.
More than once, Brodie and her colleagues warned the Rental Housing Committee they risked a lawsuit if they veered too far from the spirit of Measure V. Given Means' newly revealed political work in Pacifica, Brodie said she didn't believe he could plausibly say he is working to uphold the measure.
"It should be a basic criterion for this committee that you support this law," she said. "Anyone who is saying their job is to limit the damage of (rent control) and doesn't believe in the purpose of the law, they don't belong on this committee."
It is unclear whether conflict-of-interest laws would have any bearing on Means' paid political work. California government code bars public officials from financially benefiting from their position. Mountain View's own policies prohibit public officials from engaging in any employment that is inconsistent or in conflict with their duties.
In an email, Mountain View City Attorney Jannie Quinn declined to comment on this situation, except to say that a legal analysis would take considerable time.
Means said he had encountered similar questions before when he was on the City Council. At the time, he was being offered an honorarium for academic papers and lectures, sometimes on issues that were familiar to municipal government. The city attorney told him accepting the payment should be fine, so long as the speeches were work-related, he said.
"If anything, I was the most well-known candidate," Means said. "It's the council that put me in this position. If there's any issue people have, they should really be asking the council."