Supervisors consider rent control, other tenant protections as housing crisis reaches boil

Claudia Ramirez of San Rafael addresses the Marin Board of Supervisors as others wait to speak during a forum about affordable housing at the Civic Center in San Rafael on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (County of Marin photo)
Louis Jordan, director of Marin Housing Authority, speaks to the Marin County Board of Supervisors about affordable housing on Dec. 15, 2015 (County of Marin photo).

Marin county staff advised supervisors Tuesday that rent control has the potential to have the “most immediate and significant positive impact” toward preserving housing affordability in Marin.

County supervisors held their third in a series of informational workshops examining the affordable housing crisis gripping the county and exploring possible solutions. Nearly 200 people turned out for the 5 p.m. meeting at the Civic Center, and more than two dozen people, renters and landlords, provided comments.

Dave Coury of San Rafael chided the supervisors for not addressing the housing issue sooner. “I am a landlord and I feel we must have rent control,” Coury said. “We are in an emergency.”

Kiki La Porte urged the supervisors to “transcend politics and summon the leadership and vision to accept staff’s recommendation” on rent control.

Sue Tracy, a retired teacher living on a pension, said, “ We need to stabilize our rental rates in Marin County; if we don’t retired teachers like me won’t be able to live near our churches and friends.”

Wendi Kallins said, “Right now tenants really don’t have any rights. We have to do something.”

A number of speakers talked about the dire circumstances that renters in West Marin are facing. Arianne Dar of Bolinas said that homes in Bolinas are standing empty for vacation rentals while families are losing their homes.

A number of landlords, however, spoke in opposition to rent control saying it would result in an immediate spike in rents and discourage new building.

Linda Rhames of Mill Valley said, “If you put in rent control in Marin County the landlords will have no choice but to completely raise their rents so they don’t get stuck further on down the line.”

Scott Gerber, a landlord and real estate broker, said, “The truth of the matter is 99 percent of landlords aren’t gouging their tenants.”

Gail Connolly, a landlord who opposes rent control, said, when she moved to Marin in the 1960s African Americans were seeking rent control so they could continue living in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood.

“This is not a current issue; this has been going on for at least 50 years,” Connolly said.

PRESSURE ON RENTERS

County planners Leelee Thomas and Alisa Stevenson presented supervisors with a report documenting the intense pressure on Marin renters and outlined various actions supervisors can take to ease that pressure. The planners’ report contained an impressive marshalling of data all of which added up to one conclusion: woe to anyone renting housing in Marin. Renter households constitute about 30 percent of Marin’s population.

The planners said that average apartment rents have jumped by 75 percent since 2005 to $2,583 per month, and other data sources indicate that the median rent for an apartment is even higher at about $3,000 per month. They estimated that using federal affordability standards, a Marin household would currently need to earn $8,610 per month, or $103,320 per year after taxes, to afford the average rental in Marin. However, the planners said the average income for a Marin-based job was only $62,408 in 2014.

They said that the county’s dearth of affordable housing has contributed to a rise in the number of people in the county who are either homeless or precariously housed. A one-day count of Marin’s homeless population done on Jan. 29, 2015, identified 1,309 homeless persons, including 57 families with children, an increase of 38 percent since January 2013. The number of people estimated to be precariously housed and at risk of homelessness increased to 5,222 individuals in January 2015 from 4,388 in January 2013.

EVICTION SAFEGUARDS

The planners said that a rental housing survey conducted by the Community Development Agency in March “illustrated that more needs to be done to prevent displacement of the county’s low and moderate income community.”

Sixteen percent of the more than 800 respondents said their rent had increased by $200 or more per month in the past year while another 21 percent said their rent had gone up by $100 to $199. Thirty-two percent of the respondents said they are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing while 46 percent said they are paying 30 percent to 50 percent of their income.

To aid beleaguered renters, the staff recommended that the supervisors consider rent control coupled with eviction safeguards and relocation assistance. The planners estimated that the affordability of some 3,600 multi-family rental units in unincorporated Marin could be maintained through rent control.

Due to the state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, single-family homes, condominiums, and residential rental units that received a certificate of occupancy after February 1, 1995, are exempted from rent control ordinances. The law, which was passed in 1995 during the Republican administration of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, also allows a property owner to raise rents to market rate once a unit is vacated by the existing tenant.

PILOT PROGRAM

The planners said the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, East Palo Alto, Hayward, and Los Gatos have established rent regulation programs. They said several other local jurisdictions — San Mateo County, and the cities of Richmond, Alameda, Mountain View and Santa Rosa — are considering tenant protections.

The planners said one option would be for supervisors to limit rent increases to once per year and to a percentage equal to the Consumer Price Index for that year. They said the county could also opt to experiment with a pilot program with a built-in expiration date.

Alternatively, the planners said the supervisors could adopt an interim set of voluntary rent stabilization guidelines. They noted, however, that San Rafael has had such guidelines in place for 14 years and rental prices there have risen as dramatically as the rest of the county.

RELOCATION AID

The planners also said that rent control is more effective when combined with other tenant protections, most notably laws ensuring just cause for evictions. Currently, Marin landlords can evict a renter for any or no reason as long as they provide a 30-day written notice to the tenant, or 60 days if the tenant has lived in the unit for a year or longer.

The planners suggested supervisors consider adopting an ordinance to require that landlords provide a valid reason for eviction such as an owner wishing to take occupancy, non-payment of rent, nuisance to landlords or other tenants, damage to the unit, illegal activity, or any other violation of a lease.

They also recommended that the supervisors consider two other tenant protections: relocation assistance to displaced tenants and a law to prohibit landlords from discriminating against low income renters seeking to use Section 8 housing vouchers.

Supervisors took no action at Tuesday’s meeting and board president Katie Rice, who presided, stated at the beginning of the more than two-hour session that she doubts that Marin residents have an “appetite” for rent control.

Supervisor Damon Connolly, whose district includes San Rafael, made a point of defending San Rafael’s voluntary guidelines.

“My sense is that there is an interest out there in coming up with that type of code of ethics, Connolly said.”

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