A landlord-backed campaign spent more than $260,000 in an unsuccessful effort to weaken Mountain View's rent control law. That money was primarily spent on collecting signatures for a measure intended to be placed on the November ballot that was criticized as a sneaky attempt to overturn renter protections.
The campaign spending was revealed Tuesday in mandatory financial reports filed by the "Mountain View Residents for Renter, Homeowner & Taxpayer Protections." The group, better known as Measure V Too Costly, has been working for most of the year to lay the groundwork for a political campaign by coordinating a social media effort, web presence and political rallies.
Presenting itself as a grassroots effort, Measure V Too Costly took aim at the city's rent control program that was approved by voters in 2016. The landlord group portrayed rent control as an expensive mistake, arguing that it rewarded a small minority of renters to the detriment of everyone else.
In March, the group revealed its plans for a November 2018 ballot measure, which representatives described as a softened version of rent control. Tenant advocates immediately called out the measure as a Trojan horse, pointing out it had buried language that would have nullified nearly all renter protections except under rare conditions.
The financial disclosures show that despite being billed as grassroots, Measure V Too Costly was actually being directed by the California Apartment Association, a lobbying group. Since the start of the year, the landlord-backed group raised more than $265,000, mostly from large apartment companies with a strong presence in Mountain View. Major contributors included Spieker Companies ($55,000), Prometheus Real Estate Group ($65,000) and Acco Management ($36,950). The California Apartment Association (CAA) was frequently listed as an intermediary, meaning it made the contributions on behalf of specific members with the understanding that CAA would be repaid.
Nearly $220,000 of those funds went to a focused effort to collect signatures, which picked up steam starting in April. Nearly all that money was paid to Arno Petition Consultants, a Rancho Cordova-based company specializing in on-the-ground politicking. To get the initiative on the ballot, the group needed to collect 5,150 signatures, preferably with a few hundred extra to offset any invalid names.
As previously reported in the Voice, the signature-gathering campaign began to generate complaints as it became more aggressive. Signature gatherers pitched the initiative as a pro-tenant policy, falsely saying it would extend renter protections to more of the city's housing, or prevent the law from sunsetting. Many residents who signed the petition later said they felt duped.
The Mountain View Tenants Coalition began an opposition effort to encourage people who felt misled to withdraw their names from the initiative petition. Nearly 300 requested their names be rescinded, according to the City Clerk's Office.
In its own financial statements, the Tenants Coalition disclosed it was operating on a shoestring budget of $7,600 -- a fraction of the sum raised by their adversaries. Tenants Coalition spokesman Steve Chandler described it as a David-and-Goliath situation.
"They've accumulated so much money, and now they turn around and want to take away our rights and protections," he said. "Naturally, they had to purchase these signatures because few people would look at this measure and support it."
Last month, the Measure V Too Costly group announced it was suspending its effort to place the initiative on the November ballot, with spokeswoman Laura Teutschel saying the campaign was short by a few hundred signatures. Last week, California Apartment Association Vice President Joshua Howard announced he was taking over press inquiries about the measure, but he declined to say how many signatures had been gathered.
Any signatures collected would be used to place the measure on the 2020 ballot, he said. Those signatures remain valid for 180 days, meaning the group has until mid-October to submit them to the city, he said.
"We find voters are eager to sign the petition once they understand this measure protects all apartment renters," Howard said in an emailed statement. "The effort to qualify the amendments to Measure V continues with the goal of having this measure go before the voters in November 2020."
Correction: Following publication, the California Apartment Association indicated they had made an error reporting the contributions made by Speiker Properties. The firm donated $55,000, not $165,000 as previously reported. They intend to file an amended report with the city.