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Tenant Activists in Alameda Test Progressive Rent-Control Waters with Measure M1

Island renters hope to pass M1 over the landlord-backed Measure L1.

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"We felt betrayed," Laguardia said of the ordinance.

Before the new law passed, San Jose investor and property owner Matt Sridhar purchased the Bay View Apartments for a reported $6.1 million. He didn't return the Express' multiple calls or emails for this story, but he's previously described the debate over renter protections in Alameda to this paper's reporters as "a storm in a tea kettle" and "a waste of [his] time."

Today, renovated apartments at 470 Central are being advertised for $2,150, more than double what Laguardia pays. "This guy is heartless. He doesn't care. It's all business," he said of his landlord.

Simon-Weisberg, the tenant advocate who's been working with Laguardia, along with attorneys at the East Bay Community Law Center, described his landlord as "one of these speculative investors" whose business model is "basically to evict all of the long-term tenants, evict the folks of color, do some basic cleanup, and quadruple the rent."

But Ashcraft defended the higher rent, and said that the residents were paying "way under market" for these units.

After renters got M1 on the ballot, a competing signature-gathering effort funded by landlords failed to qualify. And that's when Alameda city council stepped in and voted Measure L1 onto the ballot (L1 is the city's existing ordinance repackaged for voters). Council justified putting L1 in front of voters because they say it gives them options.

Instead, it's sparked one of the most contentious, expensive ballot brawls in the East Bay.


Rent-Control Showdown

Alameda is in many ways a unique petri dish for rent-control policy. Tenants make up more than half of the residents, but the electorate traditionally consists of conservative-leaning, middle-class homeowners. Island denizens are an inimitable bunch: There are NIMBYs living next to young professionals who commute via ferry to San Francisco, immigrants, ex-Oaklanders, and both wealthy and impoverished families. Proponents argue that, if progressive renter protections such as M1 can win on the island, it's possible that rent-control laws will be embraced throughout the Bay Area (see sidebar, "Control the Situation," on page 21.)

Enter the California Apartment Association: The group doesn't have an official position on L1, but it definitely wants M1 to fail. And the CAA Issues Committee has raked in more than $1 million as of October 22 to kill it.

In Alameda, the CAA's independent-expenditure committee has spent nearly $100,000 on No-on-M1 advertising, as of October 13. By comparison, ARC's group has spent just $4,607 in the past month.

The two sides are separated by more than money. The M1 and L1 contingents couldn't be further apart when it comes to rent-protection ideology.

Howard with the CAA said his organization doesn't support any form of rent control, straight up. He's even unconvinced that there exists a widespread problem of unfair rent increases or unjust landlord evictions in the Bay Area. "There were several bad actors who were a little aggressive," Howard admitted of the situation in Alameda. "But the city should've focused more on dealing with those actors" instead of passing sweeping new laws.

Meanwhile, Catherine Pauling, an Alameda renter and activist with Alameda Renters Coalition, said that no-cause evictions are being used against longstanding and responsible tenants. "We all know people who have come home to sixty-day notices" because of greedy landlords trying to exploit surging rent prices, she said.

It's perhaps difficult for voters to distill the truth of each rent-control measure. For instance, one of the main talking points by the anti-M1 contingent is that the measure will create "a $4 million bureaucracy," including the formation of a rent board (a la in Berkeley). Lawn signs, mailers, TV ads, and even some council members decry M1 and cite this $4 million number.

But Pauling dismissed this amount as "ludicrous." She noted that Alameda's own city attorney says that the rent board will be paid for by a fee imposed on landlords, to the tune of approximately $235 per unit, per year.

And the city attorney's impartial analysis also estimates that L1's rent program will cost approximately $1.95 million annually — which will be paid by taxpayers out of the general fund (for now).

"The misinformation that the city itself has contributed to confound a voter-driven initiative is unconscionable," Pauling said of the $4 million claim.

But M1 critics also have reasonable, fact-based beefs with the measure, such as their argument that its cap on rent increases is too extreme.

According to ballot language, M1 would limit hikes to once a year, and at only 65 percent of the Consumer Price Index. This year, that would allow a 1.3 percent increase, or $32 more each month for a tenant paying $2,000.

Howard says this ceiling is "limiting an owner to get a fair return on their investment." Others point out that several other rent-control measures on the November ballot, and even Oakland, allow higher limits on rents.

But tenant groups refute these arguments by pointing out that the CPI fluctuates — it was 3 percent in 2012 — and that the two-thirds of the CPI cap allows for steady and predictable rent increases that benefit both landlords and renters.

Many landlords also worry that M1's relocation fees are too steep, especially for mom-and-pop operators of small buildings or duplexes. Consider: If an owner wants to repair, move-in to, or take a unit off the market, they would have to pay at minimum $7,300 (for a single tenant that's resided fewer than three years) and up to $18,300 (for a disabled or senior tenant more than three years) to a renter as a relocation fee.

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