Since rent control took effect three years ago, more than 300 older apartments in Mountain View have been marked for demolition. This trend has strengthened a leading argument against rent control: by restricting prices, it's encouraging landlords to exit the apartment business, which is forcing out the tenants least able to afford new housing.
But a little-noticed state mandate that takes effect this month may completely upend that scenario for Mountain View. In recent days, housing advocates and city officials have suddenly become very interested in SB 330, a housing bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner that would essentially force landlords and developers to preserve rent-controlled apartments.
The bill, dubbed the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, was just one among hundreds of bills in last year's legislative session that tried to address California's severe housing shortage. In general, Skinner's bill gained far less attention than other hot-button legislation like SB 50 or AB 1482, which mandated statewide rent caps. While those bills faced intense opposition, SB 330 passed under the radar, receiving support in both legislative houses and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
To anyone glancing at SB 330, its language focuses mainly on easing development standards by prohibiting cities from using a wide variety of tricks to curb growth, such as imposing housing moratoriums, population caps, lower-density zoning or endless permit requirements.
But for Mountain View, the most consequential section of SB 330 was buried deep in the bill. The new law also prohibits cities from approving new housing developments that would raze rent-controlled or affordable housing -- that is, unless an equal number of new units are rebuilt for tenants at the same price.
For tenant advocates, that requirement looks like a game-changer that could swiftly lead apartment owners to reconsider tearing down older units. Even in cases where apartments are being redeveloped into for-sale housing, developers will still be required to build new housing for all former tenants. Any displaced tenants must be given first rights to new housing units at the same price, said Nazanin Salehi, staff attorney with the Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. These protections took effect at the start of January.
For the last few weeks, Salehi said, she has been collaborating with a statewide working group of attorneys and policy experts who are analyzing the implementation of SB 330. She admitted many tenant advocates like herself hadn't noticed the law's implications until very recently.
"I don't think a lot of people were paying attention to SB 330, but this is really fantastic," she said. "What this state legislation is saying is that this type of housing is so valuable that we need to make sure we're preserving it. And this makes the argument for weakening rent control weak, if not moot."
Over the course of the last year, the Mountain View City Council reluctantly signed off on a series of redevelopment projects that razed rent-controlled apartments in order to build for-sale rowhouses. Each of those projects brought out a desperate crowd of tenants who begged the city to find some way to save their homes, but council members said they couldn't reject projects that met the city's development criteria.
For months, city officials had pledged to take a variety of actions to halt this trend, such as a "no net loss" policy to prohibit new developments that reduce the overall number of housing units. The City Council considered these actions at an October study session, but no formal policy changes have been brought back yet.
Exactly what SB 330 and its one-for-one replacement of rent-controlled units means for Mountain View remains uncertain. City planning officials say they are aware of the law, and they have been bringing it to the attention of any developers who submit new plans, but they could not specify any individual projects that would be affected.
"We're taking a look at what all this means," said Aarti Shrivastava, city planning director. "All we know right now is what this law says generally. How it applies specifically is going to depend on what status each project is at."
Under the language of SB 330, the one-for-one requirement doesn't affect projects deemed "complete" prior to Jan. 1. To her understanding, Shrivastava said a development is complete if the city has received all information on it, but it still might be waiting for approvals or entitlements. In general, the SB 330 requirements will only apply to newer projects, and the city is still reviewing how this would apply to individual development proposals that are under review.
Still, the new development requirements for rent-controlled apartments are being celebrated by tenants who were living under the specter of being displaced. Dinnie McLaughlin, who has lived for 17 years at a Whitney Drive apartment complex, said she and other tenants were trying to figure out if the new law would curtail plans submitted back in June to redevelop their homes into condominiums. At this point, she said she is "cautiously optimistic."
"We're still waiting to see if that's the case. And if it is, then this is a major blessing," she said. "I'm going to hold off on my excitement for now until I know what's going on, but it looks like a positive sign."
The new SB 330 law could also play a significant role in how voters respond in March to Measure D, which was drafted by city officials to soften the Mountain View's rent control law. Up to this point, proponents on the City Council have argued that the stringent rent control restrictions that voters approved in 2016 has been leading landlords to redevelop their properties, taking rental units off the market.
As SB 330 was moving through the state Legislature last year, the bill was actively opposed by the League of California Cities, which viewed it as a threat to local control. However, the legislation did receive support from lobbyists and advocates for developers. Those interest groups saw the tenant protections as a sacrifice worth making if the law created a boost to housing production, said Michael Lane, deputy director at the housing advocacy group SV@Home.
"The idea here is to disincentivize a business model that displaces residents. Just because it's a hot market, we shouldn't be demolishing affordable units," he said. "Developers and their trade associations thought it was fair trade-off because they saw this law as creating more certainty."