Council abandons rents task force
Council abandons rents task force
Members of the City Council voted Tuesday to abandon plans to create a city-sponsored rents task force, opting instead to allow a local attorney to lead a community-based process to explore concerns about rising rents.
The council voted 3-2 to move forward with the community based process; the community group is to report its findings on December 2. Council members didn’t make any decisions about when – or if – they would move forward with an official task force in the future.
The task force proposal was the result of growing concerns over evictions and rising rents in Alameda. More than half of Alameda’s residents are renters.
Councilman Stewart Chen, who spearheaded the proposal for the community-based process in what may have been the most forceful advocacy he has offered in two years on the council, said it would be more effective than a government-sponsored group because it won’t be bogged down by public notice and other requirements a city task force could have to comply with.
“Mr. Cambra is willing to work with the community to get it done, make some resolution, (and) get it back to the council. If we want to move expeditiously, it has to be outside this government constraint,” Chen said, adding that he didn’t think the task force city staff proposed was inclusive enough.
Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Tony Daysog – who voted against moving forward with a community process – said they felt a city-sponsored group would be more legitimate and productive and would signal the seriousness of the city’s interest in addressing concerns over evictions and rising rents.
“I think the danger of us empowering you to move forward … is that it sends a question of what is the legitimacy of the task force,” Daysog told Cambra.
Mayor Marie Gilmore, who cast the tie-breaking vote to move forward with the community process, said that while she shared Ashcraft and Daysog’s concerns, she wasn’t convinced people would see the city’s task force as a legitimate avenue for exploring eviction and rent concerns.
Leaders of the housing group Renewed Hope, which had initially supported the task force, later questioned whether the one proposed by city staff included enough renter advocates. And they expressed concerns about whether they had done effective enough outreach to truly represent local renters.
“It could be viewed by tenants and tenant groups as a safer environment than a formal, established city board or commission,” said Councilwoman Lena Tam, who moved to proceed with the community process.
Members of Renewed Hope originally asked city leaders to consider rent controls as part of the city’s creation of a new housing blueprint for Alameda’s general plan, but later supported the idea of creating a task force to determine the nature and impacts of rent increases in Alameda in the face of massive resistance from the local real estate community.
The City Council tasked city staffers with presenting recommendations for the structure, membership and charge of the proposed task force; their recommendation, considered and rejected Tuesday, would have set up a task force that included representatives of Renewed Hope and the local Realtors association and chamber of commerce, along with a regional rental housing group and members of the Planning Board, Social Service Human Relations Board and Rent Review Advisory Committee.
The committee reviews rent disputes between tenants and landlords and makes recommendations. Its findings are not legally binding on either party.
Cambra – an attorney and mediator who has served on a laundry list of local boards and who ran for City Council in 2012 – proposed a community group with a list of stakeholders that includes Renewed Hope and staffers from Alameda’s three major rental housing management companies, landlords and members of the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee. Discussion topics and additional stakeholders would be determined at the group’s initial meeting.
Cambra proposed and spearheaded a similar process last year to discuss the fate of Historic Alameda High School, with the goal of finding a shared solution. The group never made an official recommendation, though members said they would like to see the buildings saved and returned to school use.
Renters who attended Tuesday’s meeting urged the council to move quickly toward a fix for rising rents and evictions.
“I hope the council will take action to form the task force,” said Rasheed Shabazz, who talked about the trauma caused by evictions from the Buena Vista Apartments – now Summer Home – two decades ago. “To those people who are listening at home, tenants: Organize, organize, organize.”
During the discussion, one man who identified himself as a disabled renter sprang from his seat began shouting at council members that they needed to “wake up” to evictions and other issues faced by renters, prompting Gilmore to stop the meeting briefly.
But the sole landlord who appeared before the council, Farhad Matin, said he was concerned the task force’s goal was to push the city toward rent control, which he said would restrict the availability of rental housing in Alameda and provide landlords a disincentive for maintaining their property, and would impact owners’ ability to refinance debt on their properties. And landlords have questioned whether it’s fair to impose restrictions on the returns they may realize from their investment in rental property – returns they say are limited by the cyclical nature of the rental market.
“Economists agree, (rent control laws) are destructive,” said Matin, who said he’s anticipating a “correction” of rental prices and said he’s already unable to get the rents he was getting six months ago.
One thing everyone seems to agree on: Rents are rising. Two-thirds of the renters who participated in a recent Renewed Hope survey said their rents had risen over the last year, and 15 percent said they were handed increases of more than 10 percent – the ceiling typically accepted by the local rent commission.
But opinions on how – or whether – to address the issue vary sharply.
Rent control laws have been used as a tool to protect lower-income renters since the 1940s, though many have questioned their efficacy. Proponents say they protect renters from rate spikes and unjust evictions and help to maintain a diverse community. But opponents argue they are a blunt force instrument that provides below-market rent to rich and poor alike while limiting available rental opportunities for everyone else.
Cambridge, Massachusetts had rent controls in place from 1970 until 1995, when opponents were successful in passing a state law that banned them. Economists who studied the aftermath of the abolishment of rent control in the Boston suburb found that getting rid of it added $1.8 billion to the property values and that investments in local properties doubled on an annual basis between 1994, the year the proposition ending rent control passed, and 2004. But they also determined that rents increased “steeply” after controls were abolished and that residential turnover “rose sharply,” particularly in the buildings once subject to the controls.
New York’s rent controls – which date back to the 1940s and can be passed down to family members – have come under fire with the discovery that some of the state’s leaders, including former Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charlie Rangel, enjoy rent controlled apartments in some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. But advocates have countered that the laws protect more needy people than wealthy ones.
California’s Costa-Hawkins Act prohibits rent controls for single-family housing and anything else built after 1995. But the majority of Alameda’s rental properties are either too old or too large to qualify for those exemptions, U.S. Census data show.
Still, even cities with rent controls – including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland – are struggling with supply and affordability issues. Los Angeles was recently ranked the most unaffordable city in America, while state legislators are seeking to tighten the Ellis Act – which allows landlords to evict tenants if they choose to “get out of the rental business” – in order to address a fresh wave of evictions in San Francisco.
In Oakland, some tenants are seeing rents skyrocket beyond what they can pay as the result of a rule permitting landlords to charge them for renovations and upgrades.
But efforts to increase the supply of below-market rental housing – the solution advocated by local opponents of rent control – may also be falling far short of demand, particularly here in Alameda, where Measure A long prohibited the construction of apartments and other multifamily housing and the more recent loss of redevelopment bond funds has, according to some city leaders, hampered Alameda’s ability to finance affordable housing here.
City leaders have worked over the past several years to boost Alameda’s supply of affordable housing by enacting policies that require homebuilders to include it in their developments and allowing them to build apartments and other multifamily housing under certain circumstances.
Over the past several years, the city added 62 studio apartments for lower-income renters when it renovated the old Islander motel, and another 16 when it build Jack Capon Villa for developmentally disabled residents; the construction of Shinsei Gardens added another 39 apartments. And the new development rules enacted by city leaders have put dozens of new homes in the pipeline at Alameda Landing and Marina Shores.
But the response to at least one of those developments illustrates that what Alameda has to offer lower-income renters may not be enough. The 52-unit Breakers at Bayport complex – a below-market apartment complex built as the result of a lawsuit settlement over the Buena Vista evictions and a city policy requiring builders to set aside 15 percent of the housing the develop for lower-income tenants – drew 200 applicants when it opened to tenants.
In addition to engaging in fact-finding to determine the scope and impacts of rising rents, the city-sponsored task force’s charge was to include recommendations detailing what if any changes the council should consider making to its rental review committee and city codes – a job those involved in the community process will now shoulder. But if things don’t work out, the council could reconsider its options.
“I hope there’s a sense of shared values between us,” Renewed Hope’s Laura Thomas said of the community stakeholder group. “There has to be a way forward, and we will find it.”