The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Thursday to appoint Nicole Haines-Livesay to the city's Rental Housing Committee, tasked with running the city's rent control program and making key decisions on the 2016 law.
Haines-Livesay has been serving an interim position on the committee since January, making her the quick favorite in a pool of eight candidates. She had previously been picked as an alternate member of the committee, but stepped in to replace former committee member Vanessa Honey following her resignation.
Haines-Livesay said in the past that she was pleased to see rent control pass in Mountain View, seeing it as a chance to balance the needs of two opposing forces -- landlords and tenants -- and that she would take a neutral approach that tries to bring both sides together. At the Sept. 3 council meeting, she again billed herself as someone that would approach the committee's work as a neutral arbiter: someone who would administer the law rather than take punitive action against any one group.
"We are trying to interpret and ensure that we have promoted the spirit of the regulation, not just necessarily the letter," Haines-Livesay said.
The committee, created through the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA), operates independently of the City Council and serves a two-fold purpose. It administers CSFRA as written and imposes annual caps on rent increases for rent-controlled apartments, while also arbitrating disputes between landlords and renters seeking higher or lower rents, respectively.
Haines-Livesay's perceived neutral position is bolstered by her own housing situation: She doesn't own property in Mountain View and rents a condo that is not covered by CSFRA, removing the possibility of a personal stake. What's more, while she has a background in real estate through a previous job for a private equity real estate company in Texas, she has since left that role behind to work in the financial services industry.
Each candidate faced the same questions that queried them about their relevant experience and how they believe the committee should do its job. Candidates were also asked about how they would treat their relationship with the City Council, and what they would do to spur capital improvements to aging rental properties when landlords have a cap on rent increases.
When asked about fixing up old properties, Haines-Livesay said there needs to be some mechanism for landlords to pass through costs to tenants, but that it doesn't have to be adversarial. Both sides can come to the table and have "unified interest," and the Rental Housing Committee can help make that happen.
"I do think that capital injections are needed from time to time," she said. "I believe it's important that housing providers and tenants be on the same page around improvements."
The other applicants include Richard Yu, a property owner who helps his parents manage a five-unit rental property in Mountain View; Hank Dempsey, the head of public policy at Snap Inc. and former consultant for the state Legislature; and Weihang Fan, a software engineer who recently moved to Mountain View.
Software engineer Alex Brown and and technical writer Bee Hanson, both outspoken residents of the Santiago Villa Mobile Home Park, also applied for the position. Two of the candidates, Alexandra Bowen and Adrianna Rositas, did not participate in the interviews.
Some candidates, notably Fan and Dempsey, vowed to stay as neutral as possible if they were appointed. Fan said the Rental Housing Committee should stick to its job of adjudicating landlord-tenant disputes over rent, while Dempsey said the committee should avoid acting from a "position of advocacy" in implementing rent control. Even with the neutral approach, however, Dempsey said he believes more can be done to ensure the coronavirus pandemic doesn't lead to mass displacement.
"By the time we're done with COVID and the recession that we'll be seeing because of it, I don't want to see Mountain View change. I don't want to see a lot of the people that I know and care about -- who just have different employment situations -- I just don't want to see them leave," he said.
Others sought to take a stronger advocacy approach. Hanson, who prefaced her interview by saying members of the City Council and the Rental Housing Committee have "tried their best to kill CSFRA," described how mobile homes are in dire need of the same renter protections. Low-income families and seniors on fixed income, in particular, are unable to pay for rent hikes in Santiago Villa and Sahara Mobile Village -- both owned by mobile home park owner John Vidovich.
Property owners deserve a fair rate of return on their rental units, but she believes Vidovich is going too far.
"The fair rate of return is fine, what we don't want is an outrageous rent return, which is what Sahara and Santiago are giving their owner," Hanson said.
If appointed, Hanson said she would use her vote to "nullify" the votes of current committee member Julian Pardo de Zela, who she believes is biased and a rubber stamp for certain council members.
In the early days of rolling out rent control in Mountain View, the Rental Housing Committee voted against extending renter protections to mobile homes. For many mobile home residents, the decision felt like a betrayal and a deliberate misinterpretation of the spirit of the law.
With the council's decision on a new member Thursday, it's unlikely that the mobile home decision will be overturned any time soon. The Rental Housing Committee revisited the possibility of granting rent control to mobile homes in June, but ultimately upheld its previous decision and scheduled a Sept. 21 meeting to study the issue. Haines-Livesay was already a voting member of the committee at that time, meaning the council's pick would not alter the June vote.