Amid plans to draft a 2020 ballot measure, the Mountain View City Council will likely seek greater influence over the city's rent control law, particularly a provision giving them the ability to make changes.
In its first meeting on Tuesday, July 23, members of a new City Council subcommittee offered a high-level vision of potential changes they wanted to see made to the city's rent control law, known as the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA). To the surprise of some, the three subcommittee members -- Margaret Abe-Koga, Lucas Ramirez and Chris Clark -- voiced support for keeping rent control in Mountain View, saying they wanted to amend the program to make it more flexible.
"I want to make the CSFRA sustainable in the long-term. I think it has done a good job in the last few years," Clark said. "We need to take our learning from the last years to make sure it's a living, breathing document as opposed to this thing that's written in stone."
Those words may have elicited a double take. Clark had previously actively campaigned against the CSFRA for being too rigid and extreme, and backed a milder alternative that failed to pass muster with Mountain View voters in 2016.
Abe-Koga, who also had opposed CSFRA, gave qualified support for keeping aspects of rent control in place. Earlier this year, she had spearheaded plans for a 2020 ballot measure to amend the program, which was approved by voters in 2016 as an amendment to the city's charter.
"Not everyone is happy with everything in the CSFRA, but the voters voted, and times have changed," she said. "We have it here, so why not make it as workable as we can?"
It was a change of heart -- or rhetoric -- from city leaders. At this first subcommittee meeting, the council members emphasized that they wanted to find ways to make the law more functional, not to gut it entirely, as some feared.
The rent control law has been one of the city's most controversial programs. Landlord groups have attempted multiple lawsuits and political campaigns to block or overturn it. In turn, tenant groups have fiercely defended the program, making it a litmus test for local politics. Like scores of past meetings on the topic, the overflow crowd at the subcommittee meeting was starkly divided between these two rival camps.
Speaking during public comment, landlord advocates blamed the law for discouraging new housing development, shuttering apartments and even fostering homelessness. California Apartment Association (CAA) spokesman Joshua Howard was lukewarm toward the city's new push for a ballot measure. A city measure could end up competing with the CAA's own initiative headed for a ballot in 2020, either in March or November. That CAA measure has been heavily criticized by tenant advocates, who say it is a veiled attempt to repeal Mountain View's rent control.
Several residents urged the city to use the ballot measure as a chance to explicitly include mobile homes under rent control protections. For nearly two years, mobile home park residents have tried to make the case that the vague language in the CSFRA meant that mobile homes should also be covered, but they have failed to win over the city's rental housing committee or win a favorable legal decision.
Speaking to this concern, the city's new CSFRA subcommittee members echoed the need to clarify the status of mobile homes, although they avoided specifics on what that should be. In a separate effort, the City Council has set a goal to discuss some kind of policy on mobile homes in its future meetings.
What was more clear is that city leaders are intent on exerting greater control over the rental program. Council member Ramirez suggested new language in the city charter to designate that the rental housing committee is subordinate to the City Council.
Similarly, council member Clark suggested the City Council needed some limited power to make changes to the rent control regime as it saw fit. To do this, he suggested setting a higher threshold than usual, such as a council supermajority. Bringing in more flexibility was important, he said, because otherwise resentment would build up against rent control and the law could be entirely overturned.
City leaders also mentioned the need to expedite the rent control law's petition process, making it easier for landlords to recoup expenses for special maintenance or improvement projects.
Little was mentioned about the actual rent caps in the CSFRA, which ties apartment rent increases to the annual inflation rate, which hovers around 3%. Abe-Koga briefly mentioned that the rent cap might need to be raised, and she suggested Mountain View might want to adopt a 5% limit, similar to San Jose.
It was not immediately clear whether the subcommittee ideas would gain support among tenant advocates. Back in 2016, the Mountain View Tenants Coalition deliberately designed the CSFRA so that the council would not be able to make changes.
A formal decision on what to include in the future ballot measure won't be coming anytime soon. The city subcommittee is expecting to hold at least five more meetings before drafting a final version later this year. In September, the full City Council is expected to convene a study session to discuss what to include in the ballot measure.
Once drafted, the measure will be eligible to go on either the March or November 2020 ballot.