By all accounts, it was a curious situation. Councilmen John McAlister, Chris Clark and Mike Kasperzak, each of whom had previously come out against rent control, joined Mayor Pat Showalter at the Tuesday meeting to fine-tune their own version of it. Some council members even agreed to help campaign and write ballot arguments in favor of the measure. They described their decision as an example of pragmatism, a necessary move to offer voters a "middle-ground" option to a citizen-backed rent-control initiative that they opposed.
"We're crafting what we think is a better methodology; it's an honest difference of opinion," Showalter said. "The need for rental protections is very real, and without (the tenant advocates') efforts we wouldn't be considering these ballot measures."
But the council members' sudden endorsement of restricting rents was called out repeatedly by supporters of the citizens' measure. Placing a second measure on the ballot was tantamount to a political "dirty trick," said Councilman Siegel. The action gave the appearance that city leaders were acting on behalf of landlords and were attempting to split the vote in November, he said.
"This is going to be confusing for voters; they'll think it's either/or for these measures," Siegel said. "Are the people putting this on the ballot really going to be supporting this?"
Skyrocketing rents and their impact on Mountain View's large tenant population have created a political groundswell and forced local leaders to make the issue a top priority in the past year. After months of discussions, council members in March presented what they called a palatable answer — a complex non-binding mediation program to try to settle disputes between landlords and tenants.
But the council majority at the last moment gutted what critics called the most important piece of their solution — they removed a binding-arbitration system that would have allowed independent officials to impose a solution to landlord-tenants disputes. In effect, that meant it was entirely voluntary for landlords to lessen rent increases or address tenants' concerns.
In response, the momentum of the hundreds of tenants who had shown up at council meetings instead went toward raising support for a rent-control measure. The Mountain View Tenants Coalition successfully gathered 7,300 signatures for an initiative that would basically tie rent increases to the rise in the regional Consumer Price Index as well as create a variety of protections against retaliatory evictions.
At a special meeting last month, the City Council came out against the tenant coalition's measure. Council members' chief criticism was that the citizens' initiative is written as a charter amendment, meaning its provisions would be enshrined in the city code and amendable only through another public vote. But authors of the measure say that was intentional because otherwise the rental protections would be vulnerable to the whims of the council.
Mayor Showalter called a special meeting in July to consider a city-backed alternative measure to compete on the November ballot. In a proposal that gained majority support, the council agreed to dust off the binding-arbitration system they had previously rejected and rewrite its language as a ballot measure. They agreed the binding-arbitration program would be mandatory only if a tenant's rent increase exceeded 5 percent.
At the Tuesday meeting, council members hashed out final details for their measure with no time to spare if they wanted to make the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters deadline for placing the competing measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.
In a long and nuanced discussion, council members for the first time considered how they would draft eviction protections. At its last meeting, the council backed the idea of using the just-cause eviction protections in the tenant coalition's measure as a template. But on Tuesday, Clark came out against that idea and he urged instead creating a system of financial disincentives.
"I really feel the just-cause protections will gentrify this city more than anything else," he said. "(Landlords) will become really picky for who they're letting into their units."
Clark's idea, which won majority support, led to the rewriting of the council's measure to use the city's existing tenant-relocation ordinance to penalize landlords who evict tenants without cause. The city last updated that program in 2014, and it currently affects landlords only if they displace four or more households. Households are eligible only if they subsist on less than 80 percent of the local median income (about $85,000). City officials promised they would update the relocation program in September before the election to make it applicable to more tenants. In effect, landlords who paid the relocation penalty would be allowed to circumvent the eviction protections.
The council considered making its rental protection apply to Mountain View's large number of mobile homes — a move that might open up a significant voting bloc. The Tenants Coalition's charter amendment doesn't specify mobile-homes as a protected group, but an attorney representing the group indicated its language could be reasonably applied to cover these residents. But City Attorney Jannie Quinn warned that mobile homes fall under a different section of state law, and council members declined to include it for fear they would risk a future lawsuit.
If the council-initiated measure passes, the City Council wouldn't be allowed to amend it for at least two years. After that, a five-member supermajority of the council could make changes to the program or revoke it entirely.
Critics warned that the council's action would create confusion by putting forward two superficially identical measures that nonetheless contain significant differences that the average voter may find hard to distinguish. Clark and others gave assurances they were writing up ballot summaries that would offer a clear choice for voters between the two policies.
But the council's motives for bringing forward the measure were repeatedly called into question by Tenants Coalition supporters, and some speakers pointed out the significant political campaign contributions that typically come from landlord interest groups.
"Are you really going to commit yourselves to campaigning for this ordinance you voted for?" asked Joan MacDonald, an organizer with the tenants' group. "Or are you going to sit back and let the California Apartment Association campaign against both (measures)?"
For their part, the measure's supporters on the council defended their actions as doing what they believed was the best for the community.
"I don't think any of us can be bought by a $500 check — if you believe that's the motive behind this, then so be it," Clark said. "Voters want to help people, at least on a temporary basis. They deserve a middle ground instead of a black-or-white choice."
At the meeting, the City Council was also obliged to formally put the Tenants Coalition's rent control measure on the ballot, which it did on a 6-0 vote. Supporters had collected enough valid signatures to assure it a place on the ballot.
In an email following the meeting, a representative from the Tenants Coalition criticized the city's measure for providing weaker protections and tacitly allowing rents to rise faster than wages.
As a charter amendment, the Tenants Coalition's measure would supercede the city-initiated measure if both should pass.
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