Mountain View residents push for historically elusive rent control

 

Ask half the people in Mountain View if they want something done about the sky-high rents, and you’ll hear “yes.” Ask city officials if this has ever happened, and expect a “no.”

A group of Mountain View tenants is looking to change this situation. They are currently collecting signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot this November, that, if passed, would to introduce rent control for the first time in the city’s history.

The campaign is far from the first. Calls for rent control in Mountain View date to the 1970s. Rent control advocates face well-funded and well-organized opposition in the form of landlords’ organizations like the California Apartment Association and the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors. These organizations enjoy a steady stream of revenue collected through members’ fees, which they use to support anti-rent control candidates in local elections.

But this time around, advocates hope that this latest initiative will be successful.

“We saw a lot of pain and suffering in Mountain View. We saw eviction notices, without cause, for folks who have been here for 15 years. We saw children who had to translate eviction notices for their parents. We have heard stories of teachers and emergency service workers, who have difficulty making ends meet,” said Evan Ortiz, a volunteer with the Mountain View Tenants Coalition.

On June 14, the coalition submitted more than 7,300 signatures to get a proposed rent control charter amendment on the ballot this November, according to Ortiz — 2,300 signatures more than the minimum requirement to ensure that the ballot measure is not contested over invalid entries.

“Seeing families who have given to the community being thrown out onto the street was terrible injustice. We thought we should do something about it,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said the charter amendment would prevent the displacement of the folks who are the “heart and soul of the community” and ease excesses of the housing affordability crisis.

Nearly 60 percent of Mountain View residents are renters, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. The median cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment is $3,495, according to data from Zillow.com, a real estate website that provides data on housing markets. But the city offers nearly no protection to its tenant population against arbitrary rent increases. Unlike San Francisco, there is no control on rent hikes, no rental board to keep track of evictions and few grounds for tenants to challenge evictions.

Left to the devices of the market, low-income, working-class tenants find themselves vulnerable and being priced out of a city they call their home.

“We’ve seen, in Mountain View, multiple rent increases of as much as 40 percent just out of the blue. And there’s nothing illegal about it,” said Juliet M. Brodie, director of the Stanford Community Law Clinic, which advises tenants’ rights advocates in the Bay Area. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.)

And in Santa Clara County, where Mountain View is located, court tenant eviction records are maintained only in the corresponding county and sealed for 60 days after the case is filed, making it difficult to track the rate of evictions, according to Brodie.
 

Priced out

For a tenant to spend a quarter of his or her pre-tax income on Mountain View’s median rent price, he or she would have to make nearly $170,000 a year.

“Many tenants spend as much as half of their income on rent,” Ortiz said.

Some of the tenants affected include teachers and NASA employees.

Mountain View’s teachers are the best paid in the state, data from the Department of Education shows, but they make only $95,365 — more than $74,000 short of the income needed to afford the city’s median rent.

Marcia Christlieb is an environmental specialist who works at NASA’s Moffett Field location in Mountain View. She and her husband live in an RV trailer on Latham Street.

“People ask why we don’t just move away, but I’ve worked my whole life to work for NASA,” Christlieb said. “I don’t want to give that up yet just because we can’t afford rent.”

The Christliebs’ experience is not unusual in Mountain View, said Ortiz.

Mountain View is not alone in its efforts. Residents in four other cities in the Bay Area — San Mateo, Burlingame, Richmond and Alameda — are collecting signatures for the upcoming elections that would put rent stabilization and just cause on the ballots: two initiatives that would limit rent increases and list a set of reasons under which landlords can evict tenants.

Calls for rent control in the South Bay have cropped up with some frequency over the past 40 years. Some cities like San Francisco, East Palo Alto and Berkeley adopted broad rent control measures in the 1970s and 1980s. But in Mountain View, tenants have been calling for rent control since the 1970s, with no results so far.

Just cause laws require that a landlord have a reasonable need to evict the tenant, rather than do so just to increase rent prices. In San Francisco, just causes include the tenant’s failure to pay rent, breaching the terms of the rental agreement or refusing to allow the landlord to access the apartment after written notice.

Mountain View’s legislation proposes to limit rent increases to once a year, and sets the amount of the increase to 100 percent of the consumer price index released by the federal government each year but with a cap of 2 – 5 percent. This means the rent increase cannot be less than 2 percent or more than 5 percent. For an apartment leased for $3,495, the maximum allowable rent the next year would be $3,669. It also puts forward a law for just cause evictions, providing set reasons under which landlords can evict tenants in order to control unhindered evictions.

“This is designed to restore some predictability and fairness in a rental housing market that is, right now, out of control. This is to stop multiple rent increases per year just out of the blue. We have seen scores of $400 rent increases for no reason and there’s nothing illegal about it,” said Brodie of the Stanford Law Clinic, who helped draft the legislation.

Brodie cited Berkeley, Santa Monica and East Palo Alto as examples of cities with rent stabilization.
 

Historically opposed

Lenny Siegel has been fighting for rent control in Mountain View for more than 40 years. Since 1971, Siegel, a longtime Mountain View resident, has run on a pro-rent-control platform. In 2014, he won.

In 1971, Siegel first ran for a city council seat and lost.

In 1981, he and an informal group of others managed to get a rent control measure on the ballot. They lost again. In the same year, Siegel recalled their group backed four city council candidates. All of them lost.

Siegel ran again in 1982, and lost to Maryce Freelen. “In 1982, the landlords organized against me and supported somebody who was more liberal than they normally would, who was against rent control. I remember they sent out fundraising letters supporting her,” he recalled.

In November 2014, Siegel and three others who supported building more housing ran for three open council seats. Only Siegel won, with 13.72 percent of the vote — the least of the three candidates who won.

He said landlord associations have consistently funded campaigns for people who oppose rent control, naming California Apartment Association Tri-County division and the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors in particular.

“Even when rent control has not been an issue, the Tri-County Apartment Association and the Silicon Valley Realtors have been engaged in every council election,” he said.

In 2014, the CAA spent $90,000 through an intermediary organization, the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition, to fund three candidates, Ken Rosenberg, Patricia Showalter and Ellen Kamei. Kamei lost with only 10 percent of the vote.

“They’ve (landlords) got money and they’re effective. Instead of convincing people, for them it’s electing people,” Siegel said, referring to what he views to be a strategy on the part of the landlords’ associations.

Since 2010, the landlord associations have given $134,085 in campaign contributions to both candidates and pro-business political action committees. Of this, the California Apartment Association and its PACs have spent $61,630.

At least one of the apartment lobbying groups, the California Apartment Association, gets its campaign revenue stream by including political action committee contributions in each membership bill it sends to its members.

If members do not “want a portion of [their] dues to be contributed to CAAPAC,” they can specify that the funds be allocated to the group’s state lobbying fund instead, according to the “Membership Renewal Invitation” it sends out annually to its members.

But the political action committee contributions do not only go to fund opposition to rent-control measures, according to Joshua Howard, senior vice president of local government affairs at the California Apartment Association.

“There are numerous projects we’ve endorsed, and several pieces of legislation in Sacramento we’re sponsoring, as well as facilitating more affordable housing. And we’ve made a one-time investment to meet housing needs with a $1 million bond for affordable housing,” said Howard. Peninsula Press emailed Howard asking for more details on these legislations but received no response.

The Mountain View City Council has addressed affordable housing issues far less often than San Francisco, for example. For this report, Peninsula Press downloaded all the minutes of meetings of Mountain View’s city council from October 2013 to the beginning of May. The term “rent control” appears in just one document, and “affordable housing” in 16 documents. Compare this to the minutes of San Francisco city’s Board of Supervisors’ meetings during the same period, and “rent control” shows up in nine documents. “Affordable housing” shows up in 81 documents.
 

Temporary solution

For all the attention the rent control ballot measure is receiving, it’s unclear whether it will gain enough support to pass in Mountain View.

Some Mountain View residents, like city council member Ken Rosenberg, are still unconvinced that rent control is the best solution for the city’s high rent prices.

“My anti-stance on rent control has softened quite a bit, but not quite enough to put me over the ledge yet because I still think there are good alternatives,” Rosenberg said.

But proponents of rent control argue that even an imperfect solution is welcome in an urgent situation.

“I agree rent control isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Brodie of the Stanford Law Clinic. “It’s designed to help your existing community members whose contributions to your community have made it great, and who should not be displaced because market conditions make it lucrative to get rid of them.”