Rent Control Is Dominating Alameda's Election

The two tenant protection measures on the November ballot promise to also shape the outcome of the city council race.


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Illustration by Heather Hardison

During an endorsement meeting before the island’s Democratic Club in August, there was a noticeable murmur from the audience when the single most compelling question of the fall election was asked of the five candidates for the city council: Where do you stand on the pair of rent control measures in Alameda?

The candidates’ answers vacillated between support for the city council-backed Measure L1, which asks Alameda voters to affirm the rent stabilization ordinance that the council approved in March, to acknowledgement that the ordinance already needs tweaking, to opposition to it. Measure L1 mandates that any rent increase above 5 percent automatically triggers mediation through the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee. It also requires landlords to pay relocation fees to tenants for certain evictions, such as those involving seniors and the disabled.

Earlier this year, some Alameda renters, who believe the council’s ordinance fails to go far enough to protect vulnerable tenants, launched a signature-gathering campaign that led to the placement of Measure M1 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The renters’ initiative would enact full rent control in Alameda, limiting annual rent hikes in most apartment buildings on the Island to no more than 65 percent of the Consumer Price Index. Measure M1 also bans evictions without just cause and would create an elected rent board.

Malia Vella, a former district director for Assemblymember Bill Quirk and ethics instructor at Mills College, is the only candidate who has voiced clear opposition to Measure L1. She believes the council’s measure only muddies what should be a conversation centered on the pros and cons of rent control in Alameda and not by bolstering through the ballot box a city ordinance already in need of improvements.

“Shame on the council for trying to confuse the issue and trying to confuse voters,” Vella said. “This is about the democratic process. [The Alameda Renters Coalition] was able to collect 8,000 signatures. It qualified for the ballot. It should be decided by the people, and we should not be confusing the issue.”

In an interview, incumbent Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Aschraft, who, like Vella, is backed by Alameda’s public safety unions, stood by her votes to approve the rent ordinance earlier this year and for placing it on the ballot. Ashcraft does not support the rent control measure, in part because Measure M1 is a charter amendment, and so if approved by voters this November, would require another vote of the people to change. Measure L1, by contrast, would allow the city council to later alter the law.

Ashcraft also disagrees with Measure M1’s strict cap on rent increases. Last year, according to city staff, the CPI rose by just 1.7 percent, meaning Measure M1 would prohibit landlords from raising rents in most buildings by more than 1 percent in the near future, said Ashcraft. “Our landlords, especially ones with older properties, they won’t be able to do proper maintenance and upkeep of their buildings.” The renters’ group, however, contends the cap is needed to tamp down runaway rent increases that were the impetus for Measure M1 in the first place.

Councilmember Tony Daysog also does not support Measure M1, and instead offers the most praise for Measure L1. The goal of the council’s rent ordinance was to clamp down on out-of-control rent increases, and it’s already proving to be a success, said Daysog in an interview. “Since adoption, the rent ordinance has, in over 60 cases, effectively stopped excessive rent increases, resulting in outcomes where landlords and tenants have mutually settled on agreements hovering around 5 to 7 percent,” he said.

Measure L1 allows for binding arbitration of rent increase disputes and puts the onus on landlords to petition Alameda’s Rent Review Advisory Committee for rent hikes above 5 percent over the last 12 months. The Alameda Renters Coalition, however, maintains there is no way of knowing how the cases reportedly settled through private arbitration actually turned out. Nevertheless, Daysog said none of the 60 cases have gone to the binding arbitration level. “The looming presence of that has forced landlords into settling with tenants in reaching mutually agreeable and reasonable rent increases,” he said.

Former Alameda Councilmember Lena Tam, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this report, is seeking to return to the dais after a two-year absence. She told the Alameda Democratic Club that she does not support Measure M1, but also is unlikely to support the council’s measure. “It’s been in effect for four months,” said Tam. “I’m already hearing all sorts of complaints about its implementation. I think it needs to be fixed and the best way to fix it is to maintain the flexibility of the council to change it quickly.” Tam also questioned the financial feasibility of creating a new city bureaucracy for administering rent control, estimated to initially cost around $4 million.

The fifth candidate, Jennifer Roloff, who also did not respond to requests for an interview, is the least experienced in the race, and her position on the ballot measure appears to be mixed. According to her campaign website, she supports Measure L1’s flexibility and its binding arbitration component. “I favor giving the dispute resolution process a chance to work, before moving to a more stringent process,” she states. But at the Alameda Democratic Club meeting, Roloff said the council’s rent ordinance was enacted “too little, too late” to help struggling renters.

Published online on Sept. 27, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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