There's nothing wrong with a fair debate over rent control. Rent control has always been a controversial issue, and there are compelling arguments on both sides.
There is something wrong, however, with trying to roll back rent control by lying to voters.
A landlord-backed group spent more than $260,000 in an attempt to circumvent an honest debate about Mountain View's new rent control law with a dishonest signature-gathering campaign in support of a truly duplicitous ballot initiative aiming to kill rent control in Mountain View.
While the false assurances of the paid signature gatherers (It will keep rent control from ending! It will extend rent control to mobile homes!) drew protests and countermeasures, the California Apartment Association's initiative itself was remarkable for its crass attempt to deceive voters.
Although proponents have tirelessly pitched the initiative's bells and whistles, you sure don't hear much from them about the poison pill hidden inside its 20 pages of text. It's kind of like selling people a dietary supplement that contains several good things -- say, vitamin C, organic protein and probiotics -- and also contains a lethal dose of arsenic.
At first glance, the "Mountain View Homeowner, Renter, and Taxpayer Protection Initiative" appeared to offer a milder version of the voter-approved rent control provisions contained in Measure V. It was similar to the City Council-backed Measure W, which was defeated, and promised to keep high-income residents from benefiting from rent-controlled apartments and to roll back just-cause evictions, making it easier to get rid of problem tenants. It promised to keep the unpaid members of the Rental Housing Committee overseeing rent control from ever getting paid for their work.
Only a close reading of the initiative's full text reveals its poisonous center. Whenever the vacancy rate in Mountain View is above 3 percent, the proposed initiative would set no enforceable limit on rent increases. For as long as the city has gathered reliable data on the rental housing vacancy rate, it hasn't gone below 3 percent. The current vacancy rate is around 4 percent, and Mountain View is hardly what anyone would call a favorable market for renters.
The fact that a rent control law was approved by over 53 percent of voters in November 2016 may say more about the increasingly unaffordable local housing market than it does about the popularity of rent control. Certainly, no one can say the rollout of Measure V has been smooth. A costly legal challenge from the California Apartment Association delayed its implementation for months, and an anti-rent control majority on the council stacked the Rental Housing Committee with several members who appear to be fundamentally opposed to the idea of rent control (and one, Tom Means, who is avowedly anti-rent control).
Even so, it's hard to imagine spending more than a quarter-million dollars, telling registered voters whatever they wanted to hear, and still failing to gather the 5,500 or so signatures needed to put the "Mountain View Homeowner, Renter, and Taxpayer Protection Initiative" on the November ballot.
CAA vice president Josh Howard has vowed to continue the fight and said he aims to put the initiative on the 2020 ballot. We hope that the second time around, the CAA and its backers will see fit to engage Mountain View citizens in an honest debate about rent control to find out if they have changed their minds. If they don't, Mountain View voters will have to remain vigilant and be sure to always read the fine print.