Housing advocates seek rent control

Housing advocates seek rent control

Michele Ellson
Renewed Hope

Renewed Hope president Laura Thomas addresses the Planning Board on March 10.

Housing advocates are asking the city to consider new rules that could control the rise of rents.

They’re asking city leaders to commit to creating rent stabilization rules in a new housing blueprint that’s going through a public approval process now.

“Renters are the majority of people in this town, and those that are at risk of being not able to live here are the majority of the majority,” Laura Thomas, president of Renewed Hope housing advocates, told the Planning Board at a March 10 hearing. Thomas asked the board to include a commitment to creating a rent stabilization ordinance in the new housing element of the general plan.

Board members offered mixed opinions of the proposal. Board president David Burton said thought making housing more affordable here is “something we should look at,” though he noted that rent controls are a “complicated issue.” Board member Danya Alvarez-Morroni, a past president of the Alameda Association of Realtors, said she didn’t think she would support such a proposal.

Thomas said city leaders she met with were open to the idea of including rent stabilization in the housing element; City Planner Andrew Thomas, who is overseeing its development, could not be reached for comment.

Prompted by the story of an elderly couple forced out of their longtime home by a 67 percent rent increase, Renewed Hope assembled an ad hoc group of housing advocates and renters interested in doing something to protect renters as rents escalate.

At an appeal hearing on the elderly couple’s rent increase, Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said she’d consider imposing controls if the city continued to hear about similar cases, while Councilman Tony Daysog said he believed the case should prompt a discussion about rent control.

In addition to Renewed Hope’s request for the rent stabilization ordinance, the ad hoc group is distributing a survey to gather data on the extent and impact of rent increases in Alameda; copies are being distributed around town, and the survey is available online. The group also plans to reach out to landlords, Thomas said.

Renters comprise about 52 percent of Alameda’s residents, 2010 U.S. Census data show, and a recent city study determined the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment here is $2,010.

Alameda does not have formal rent controls. The city has a Rent Review Advisory Committee that mediates disputes between landlords and tenants, but its recommendations are not binding. And city staff told The Alamedan in 2013 that they were seeing an increasing number of landlords refuse to participate in the committee’s hearings, which are voluntary.

Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward have rent control ordinances in place, while Fremont and San Leandro require landlords and tenants to participate in mediation if either party in a rent dispute initiates it.

Oakland, for example, allows landlords with buildings erected before 1983 to raise rents once a year with written notice, with increases tied to changes in the Consumer Price Index; additional increases can be passed on for a handful of specific reasons that include capital improvements and uninsured repair costs. Landlord-occupied buildings with three or fewer units aren't bound by the rules. The city also has a voter-approved just cause eviction ordinance that limits landlords’ ability to evict tenants.

Fremont, meanwhile, offers both conciliation and mediation services, as well as a post-mediation fact finding process in which a panel must consider a landlord's costs and investment returns, market value for similar units and the regional consumer price index in determining the reasonableness of a contested rent increase; the burden of proving the increase is justified is on the landlord.

The Realtors association has asked the Planning Board to move forward with the housing element without including a commitment to create rent stabilization rules, the association's president, Anne DeBardeleben, said in response to an e-mailed request for comment.

"This will ensure a timely submission to the State, keeps our community compliant with state regulations, and provides the opportunity for much needed diverse affordable housing," DeBardeleben said. (Thomas, the city planner, told the board the city had already submitted its draft plan to the state for approval, ahead of the public approval process.)

DeBardeleben said the association "supports the work" of the city's rent review committee and that the committee's efforts are successful in the vast majority of cases.

But housing advocates have said Alameda renters are at risk of displacement from renters moving here from higher-cost areas or investors buying rental properties for profit. And they say protections are needed.

At a recent strategy session the ad hoc group held at Buena Vista United Methodist Church, ECHO Housing’s Angie Watson-Hajjem said that there’s not a week that goes by that she doesn’t get a call from someone saying they’ve gotten an “excessive” rent increase.

One attendee who described herself as “a freaked-out renter” said she’d been receiving steady annual increases of $50 until 2011, when she said her landlord told her they couldn’t rent to her for a “below-market” rate anymore. Her rent rose by $100 a month in 2013. The Alamedan is not naming the woman because she said she feared retaliation from her landlord.

“What it comes down to is people taking advantage of a bad market,” the woman said.

Renewed Hope got its start in 1999 during the first dot-com boom, an earlier period that saw rising rents and property values push renters out of Alameda, Thomas told the group of 10 advocates and renters as the sound of a church choir wafted through an open social hall door. The group successfully sued to require the city to set aside 25 percent of the homes to be built at Alameda Point for lower income residents, but has since shifted its focus to changing policy, she said.

“I’m just interested in not seeing people pushed out of Alameda,” Thomas said.


Submitted by oldtimer (not verified) on Wed, Apr 2, 2014

This has been going on for decades. The Rent Review Advisory Committee is intentionally powerless.
"Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said she’d consider imposing controls if the city continued to hear about similar cases, while Councilman Tony Daysog said he believed the case should prompt a discussion about rent control."
Translation of political beat-around-the-bush-speak: No rent control.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Wed, Apr 2, 2014

I am seeing increased homelessness in Alameda. As rents rise, some in our community fall below the financial threshold of having a place to live. What happens to those who clean our homes, make our coffee, serve our fast food and work in our convenience stores?

Alameda will never be a progressive city that attracts wealth until it takes care of those most in need. The same enlightenment that creates innovative companies also brings solutions to human suffering. Our future will be determined by how we choose to treat our dispossessed.

Submitted by Keith (not verified) on Sat, Apr 5, 2014

Rent control is always a bad idea. Bottom line, rents go up for new residents as supply goes down (when you are under rent control eventually you are below market so you never leave). Look at San Francisco where it's crazy. Alameda has a pretty fixed supply of units so you can guarantee this will make Alameda even more unaffordable for new folks. That's bad for the city in the long run. Rent control just picks a group (existing renters) and favors them over another group (new renters). It's bad policy.

Submitted by Sam41 (not verified) on Mon, Apr 7, 2014

Keith is 100% correct. Rent control benefits current residents at the expense of new ones and landlords, many of whom are small "mom and pop" investors. If you think it's unfair that not everyone can afford to live in cities like Alameda or San Francisco, you should advocate for more public housing or more section 8 funding, and agree to pay higher taxes to fund them.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Mon, Apr 7, 2014

Alameda County Gentrification Pushing Out Longtime Residents, Possibly Causing Health Problems

The City of Alameda has intervened in the housing market for the past 40 years by severely restricting the development of rental housing. If the City restricts supply, then it needs to also limit pricing. The system benefits current landlords by keeping competition out. We already have rent control due to supply control. Unfortunately, tenants are the ones who suffer the consequences of this distorted system. The tenants are the ones who are controlled by having to pack their bags and get out. If you cannot afford the rent increase, then get a U-Haul, as there are higher income people just ready to take your place -- and don't expect a going away party, either.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Thu, Apr 17, 2014

Actually, the City's intervention in supply lasted only from 1973 to 1979, when the California legislature approved the density bonus law, which explicitly granted exemptions from restrictions such as Measure A, for the express purposes of building low-income housing.

According to US Census data, 43% of the housing stock is 1-unit, detached, or roughly 13,594 units and there are some 35,274 people in renter-occupied housing units (15,635 units).

I think we all know from our neighborhoods that many of those single-family detached homes have been carved up into 2, 3, 4 or more units, even if no developers have sought to exercise the density bonus law and build multifamily structures with low-income units, since 1979.