Back in March, when Council passed the “rent stabilization and limitations on evictions” ordinance, two of the four Council members who voted for it extolled the new law as a well-crafted compromise.
A “ground-breaking” achievement, Councilman Jim Oddie called it (not only once but three times during a 10-minute speech). “It’s not what some people want, and it’s more than other people wish we would do, but it is something that’s possible.”
“I believe this ordinance addresses the needs of both [tenants and landlords],” Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft declared. “Nobody’s happy with it, but I’d like to think it’s striking a fair balance.”
Now, it seems, those same two Council members – together with Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese, the only one who voted no in March – aren’t willing to stand behind the ordinance they passed – and praised – only four months ago.
Last Tuesday, Council voted, 3-2, with Mr. Matarrese, Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft in the majority, not to submit a ballot argument in opposition to the renters’ initiative that was expected to qualify for the November ballot (and did so the next day) – even though, if the initiative passes, it would throw the ordinance devised by Council into the dumpster.
Council also deadlocked, 2-2, on a motion not to place the March ordinance on the ballot as a charter amendment. (Again, Mr. Matarrese and Ms. Ashcraft voted in favor of the motion; this time, Mr. Oddie abstained). Council will get a chance to revisit the issue at its July 19 meeting, but if no minds are changed, a yes vote by Councilman Oddie will keep the ordinance itself off the ballot.
The result will be that voters will not be given the chance this November either to affirm the ordinance fashioned by Council or to review any explanation why their elected officials believe that the ordinance best accommodates the divergent interests of renters and landlords.
And if the competing initiative sponsored by a landlord’s group makes it onto the November ballot, voters will be forced to choose between two extremes with no input from Council about either of them.
How and why did this happen?
As the Merry-Go-Round (and others) have reported, Council’s initial step toward addressing the rental crisis in the City was to make cosmetic changes to the Rent Review Advisory Committee process. This action was roundly criticized – including by us – and last November Council instructed staff to put together an ordinance with real teeth.
The effort lasted four months and took up all or part of five Council meetings, two of which lasted well into the next day. Eventually, on February 16, Council adopted by a 4-1 vote an ordinance reflecting the consensus of its members, and on March 1 the ordinance passed its second reading.
Whatever else may be said about the law enacted by Council, it plainly represented a compromise.
On the one hand, renters, represented by the Alameda Renters Coalition, had demanded that Council set a cap on annual rent increases and prohibit so-called “no cause” evictions (i.e., terminating a tenancy by giving the statutory 30- or 60-days notice). On the other hand, landlords, represented by Alamedans for Fair Rents, opposed any form of rent control and any outright ban on no-cause evictions. They urged that the RRAC process remain the only remedy for tenants dissatisfied with a rent increase, and that no-cause evictions be permitted as long as the landlord paid relocation benefits to the current tenant and did not charge the new tenant significantly higher rent.
Council gave neither the renters nor the landlords what they wanted.
It did not establish a cap on rent increases but rather created an elaborate – and expensive – procedure in which a landlord who wants to raise the rent by more than five percent must present her case to the RRAC, and then, if unsuccessful, to a City-appointed hearing officer. Nor did it proscribe no-cause evictions altogether but instead restricted the number of evictions permitted in any one building and barred the landlord from raising the rent to the new tenant by more than five percent. And it set up another elaborate – and expensive – scheme for providing relocation benefits to renters in the case of no-cause or no-fault evictions.
There might have been a time when a law resulting from this kind of quest to stake out the middle ground would have left the opposing sides disgruntled but not disgusted. But not these days. The renters didn’t get what they wanted from Council – so they prepared an initiative embodying their original demands. The landlords didn’t get what they wanted from Council – so they, too, came up with an initiative banning any form of rent control, although it was silent on no-cause evictions.
(We hasten to add that we find no fault with either group for resorting to the initiative process to pursue its objectives. We know only too well, from the Crab Cove experience and elsewhere, that sometimes an initiative is the only way to force Council’s hand. Nor would we demean, much less demonize, anyone who argues either that the March ordinance doesn’t provide enough protection for renters or that it imposes an unreasonable burden on landlords. At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, we think it depends on how you define the problem you’re trying to solve and the goal you’re trying to achieve.)
Both groups circulated petitions, and each obtained more than the necessary number of signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. This week, the tenants’ petition was certified by the Registrar of Voters. The process of checking signatures on the landlords’ petition is ongoing (and is expected to be completed by July 27).
These events presented Council with a choice to which, in our view, the correct response was clear: If the Council members truly believed they had done the right thing by enacting the March ordinance, they should stand foursquare behind it – and be prepared, if necessary, to oppose both the renters’ and the landlords’ initiatives and to spell out for the voters why their own solution was the best one.
Last Tuesday, Council got the chance to do just that. Staff presented a report comparing the March ordinance to each of the initiatives and reminded Council of its right to submit a ballot argument for or against either of them (assuming the initiative qualified for the ballot). Both Mayor Trish Spencer and Councilman Tony Daysog leapt at the opportunity to exercise this right.
“This Council spent a long time trying to come up with something, and it is not identical to the renters’ [initiative],” the Mayor said. “I will be supporting Council’s [ordinance], which means I in effect oppose the renter’s initiative.”
Mr. Daysog made the same point more grandiloquently. “My opinion is that it’s important to weigh in on ballot initiatives whose repercussions could be as profound as Berkeley-style rent control,” he said. “[F]rankly, I think it’s the responsibility of every single Council member to clearly show the renters, the landlords, and the undecided Alamedans where we stand. This measure is too profound not to speak our voices.”
And then there was the rest of Council.
As soon as the issue came up, Vice Mayor Matarrese moved that Council “not take a position” on the renters’ initiative. He didn’t give a reason. Councilman Oddie quickly seconded the motion. He didn’t give a reason, either.
So it came down to Councilwoman Ashcraft. “I believe in what we did as a Council,” she began, and one could almost see her turning the skull of Yorick over in her hands as she continued:
I know both sides were unhappy with it, but that doesn’t mean one side was right and one side was wrong. There were some valuable truths on both sides. But I’m also willing to let our ordinance stand on its own two feet, and voters may decide: the City Council passed something, let’s give it a chance to work. But do I want to make an argument against the renters? For the renters? I agree with the Vice Mayor: I don’t. Or the landlords for that matter.
It was a speech whose opacity would have made Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (“Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt”) proud. The only rationale for Ms. Ashcraft’s do-nothing vote that could be teased out of her words was that she didn’t want to offend any interest group. (Did we forget to mention that she’s running for reelection this November?)
We find ourselves disappointed – and a just a little bit dismayed. Recently, we’ve been reading Steve Brill’s book on the history of the Affordable Care Act, and we can’t imagine President Obama (one of Ms. Ashcraft’s heroes) ever responding to efforts to repeal the law by saying: The liberals think I did too little; the conservatives think I did too much; so I won’t bother to defend what I did – or even take a position one way or the other!
(And lest we appear to be letting them off the hook, we think Mr. Matarrese and Mr. Oddie owed the public a statement of the reasons for their John Ehrlichman-like willingness to let the March ordinance twist slowly, slowly in the wind. The Vice Mayor may not have wanted to take any action that could be construed as favoring an ordinance he voted against, but Mr. Oddie’s silence is inexplicable on any principled basis.)
The staff report gave Council another option: putting the March ordinance on the ballot as a charter amendment. “Providing the community with an opportunity to ratify the existing Ordinance may be helpful for those voters who are seeking a middle ground between the two initiatives,” the report said. “It could also help frame the debate within the community about how it wants to strike a balance between the rights of landlords and protections for tenants.”
True enough – but it could also confuse the hell out of the electorate. When an initiative is placed on the ballot, voters are asked to mark yes or no in response to a 75-word “ballot question.” Could an average voter tell the difference between the two (or three) competing rent initiatives from a 75-word description of each? We’re not so sure, and we seriously doubt that many voters will scour the voter information pamphlet to figure it out.
Moreover, converting the March ordinance to a charter provision creates its own set of problems. As an ordinance, changes can be made by majority vote on Council; as a charter provision, changes can be made only by a vote of a people. As the staff report acknowledged, placing the ordinance in the Charter would hamper “the ability for the Council to respond relatively quickly to changing circumstances in the economy [and] public opinion” as well as “the ability to refine the regulations as the program is implemented over time.” To give credit where it is due, Ms. Ashcraft made precisely this point at the Council meeting.
At bottom, if Council wanted to “help frame the debate within the community,” there is a better way to do it than by putting the March ordinance on the ballot as a charter amendment. You guessed it: Council should decide to submit a ballot argument opposing the renters’ and – if it gets certified – the landlords’ initiatives, and making the case why an ordinance intended to take a “middle-of-the-road” approach is better than both of them.
It’s not too late. When Council meets again on the 19th, one item on the agenda is the ministerial act of placing the renters’ initiative on the ballot. Staff also is recommending that Council consider foregoing its customary month-long August recess and scheduling a regular meeting on the 12th to place the landlord’s initiative (if it qualifies) on the ballot, too. (To us, this recommendation makes eminent sense). And while they’re at it, maybe Mr. Oddie and Ms. Ashcraft will come to their senses and realize that taking a position is what Alamedans elected them, and expect them, to do.