A rent control dilemma: Editorial

The soaring cost of housing in the Bay Area has spurred several rent control initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot, including two measures, V and W, in Mountain View.

Measure V, sponsored by the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, is a charter amendment that would limit rent increases to 2 to 5 percent per year. Charter amendments are unchangeable without another vote of the people.

Introducing the initiative as a charter amendment triggered the Mountain View City Council to propose an alternative, Measure W. Measure W restores the binding arbitration element the council removed from its already approved Rental Housing Dispute Resolution program. Measure W would be amendable by the council.

Rent control is a long-standing controversial issue with strong arguments for and against. Proponents see it as a tool to rein in opportunistic landlords who raise rents unreasonably when housing demand is high. Opponents claim that it hurts both landlords and tenants because it’s a disincentive for landlords to maintain their properties. It’s also an incentive to sell the property to developers who will demolish the old building and construct pricey new apartments that are not subject to rent control. A state law passed in 1995 exempts apartments built from that year to the present from rent control.

Landlords speaking at council meetings said the vast majority maintain good relationships with tenants and have even kept rents below market to enable financially struggling residents to stay in their homes. Only a few match the “greedy landlord” stereotype.

But Mountain View rents collectively rose more than 50 percent over a four-year period, according to city data. Yes, the city currently has all kinds of housing under construction, but affordable housing? Not so much. The eventual solution is more available housing and market forces kicking in. But affordability could be years away.

The tenants coalition is justified in its initiative to act on rent gouging. But Measure V goes too far in its intractability. The more suitable stop-gap measure is Measure W, because the city can change it as times change. It is not a “dirty trick,” as some opponents claim, but a reasonable alternative that will keep a rent control system in place for as long as there’s a proven, dire need. The people still retain the upper hand – they can vote out councilmembers just as they can decide on rent control.

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