Mountain View city leaders could be hurting for allies as they venture down the thorny path of reforming the city's rent control law. In a rare sign of agreement, landlord and tenant advocates each signaled wariness if not outright hostility to the idea of patching up rent control rules, even if it made the law more sustainable in the long term.
At its Monday night meeting, a City Council subcommittee winnowed down a list of proposed changes to Mountain View's rental regulations that could eventually go before voters as a ballot measure sometime in 2020. But for tenants, the final list included little in the way of direct benefits; for landlords, the proposals still might not be enough to change a system of price controls they described as fundamentally flawed.
Among the ideas that percolated to the top, the three-member subcommittee backed the idea of raising annual rent-increase caps to 5% or higher, putting a greater portion of fees on tenants and empowering the City Council to make changes to rent control as its members see fit.
But any one of these ideas would be crossing a red line for tenant advocates. Speaking at the meeting, representatives from Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition delivered a list of "poison pills" that they considered to be deal-breakers in any future measure. If the city's intent is to water down protections with nothing to gain for renters, advocates warned they would coalesce to fight the city's plan, as they did when the Measure V rent control ballot initiative passed in 2016.
"We trust that no council member would want to harm Mountain View's renters," said Edie Keating, speaking for the group. "We'd be happy to discuss a possible ballot measure, but not if it would weaken Measure V."
Speaking for the landlords, Joshua Howard of the California Apartment Association said they remained focused on passing their own 2020 ballot measure, which would neutralize most rental protections under Measure V except in extraordinary circumstances. Following him, several Mountain View apartment owners laid out their grievances, particularly that rent control doesn't provide enough for their property upkeep.
"I've looked at who I'm renting to, and I'm subsidizing a bunch of Google employees and a bunch of Facebook employees," said landlord Jeff Zell. "Why do they need rent control?"
The lukewarm reaction seemed ominous for the measure's prospects at the ballot box. Early on in the discussion, Councilman Lucas Ramirez commented that the city's measure faced a major political challenge as it tried to carve out a middle ground on a deeply polarizing issue. Was any stakeholder going to champion it?
"There needs to be a constituency that supports this measure, and as we take input, it's increasingly hard for me to see what that constituency will be," he said. "We have to be very careful with this process."
Even some natural supporters for reforming rent control seemed to be turned off by the city's latest changes. Mobile home advocates for years have been urging Mountain View leaders to extend rent control protections to them, and the upcoming ballot measure seems a perfect opportunity to press their cause.
But at the Monday meeting, the city subcommittee declined to include mobile homes, on the basis that it would be a crude fit under the rent control provisions. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga promised the City Council would take up the issue on its own as a separate ordinance in the near future.
"It's not that we're not doing anything; in fact, we're going to look at it comprehensively," she said. "I really believe that mobile home parks have some distinct differences that creates a different scenario."
Similarly, council subcommittee members insisted that they needed some level of extra authority over the Rental Housing Committee, even though they acknowledged the group has done a good job so far in administering the city's rent control. By design, the 2016 rent control law was written to exclude the City Council from influencing its implementation.
City leaders favored poking some holes in this firewall. Councilman Chris Clark suggested the council should have the discretion to tweak the rent control provisions as needed, but those changes should have a "high threshold," such as a supermajority vote. He also proposed giving the council the final say for how much landlords can recoup from capital improvements, such as adding seismic upgrades, landscaping or solar panels. The council subcommittee agreed it needed authority to make changes because it was too cumbersome to go back to the voters every time an alteration was needed.
Perhaps the most important issue of the night, the council discussed increasing the annual rent cap, which is currently based on the Consumer Price Index and hovers around 3%. That amount simply wasn't enough money to support apartment owners, Clark said. In addition, the measure could require renters to pay a portion of the city's annual apartment fee that funds the rent-control program, which is currently paid entirely by landlords.
"It's hard to justify CPI being a reasonable rate of return," Clark said. "For a long-term perspective, when we talked about a sustainable rent control measure, we have to come up with some better rate of return."
The subcommittee discussed a possible rental assistance program to provide aid for any tenants who couldn't afford these higher costs.
Asked about the measure's prospects after the meeting, Abe-Koga told the Voice that amending rent control is the only way to sustain it for the long term. If modest reforms aren't implemented, then the California Apartment Association would persist in trying to overturn the law in every future election, and the community would remain deeply divided, she said.
For tenants, who comprise nearly 60% of the city's population, she said she believed they would see the benefits in creating a more stable program that prevented displacement and provided more flexibility.
"I'm trying to find a middle ground for the community so we can put this issue to rest and not let it dominate every election," Abe-Koga said. "I hope the tenants understand that CAA's measure is much more severe than anything the council is suggesting for reforms and will be willing to work with us to come up with a compromise."
Tenants advocates were less sanguine. While some reforms may make sense, the city's push to increase the costs carried by renters was simply a non-starter, said Keating of the Housing Justice Coalition.
"There is no need to find a common position if we are presented with an initiative that we need to oppose," Keating said. "If the council supports rents that grow faster than renter paychecks, that does not inspire confidence to give the council greater authority."