For the first time in decades, a city council in San Mateo County is about to enact controversial tenant protection measures.
Pacifica renters could see some temporary relief from rising rents or sudden evictions after the coastal City Council narrowly voted Monday to place a moratorium on landlords issuing steep increases or removing tenants without cause.
The rules would be temporary as the council returns next month to discuss placing a measure on the November ballot — a year after divisive elections in Burlingame and San Mateo voters ended without changes. Six Bay Area cities had rent control measures on last year’s ballot with those in Richmond, Mountain View and Oakland succeeding. In San Mateo County, only East Palo Alto has such provisions for renters.
Although Pacifica’s five-member council had avoided placing such restrictions on property owners in the past, the last election brought a sea change to the council with the newest member campaigning on a platform that included tenant protection measures.
On Monday, after an hourslong hearing and dozens of public speakers, officials voted 3-2 to tie rent increases to the consumer price index and adopt just-cause eviction regulations. The rules require a second vote April 24, after which they would go into effect May 24. The city will host a May 8 hearing to discuss whether to place more permanent provisions on the November ballot.
Per state laws, rent control would only apply to multi-family properties built before 1995. In Pacifica, that accounts for just under 2,300 apartments and landlords could pass on the costs of needed maintenance or improvements. The proposal would also prohibit evictions without cause; meaning those who break the law or the terms of their lease could still be forced to leave as well as if the property owner seeks to move in.
Tenant advocates hailed the decision as a win for the close-knit coastal community once comprised primarily of blue-collar workers. But groups like San Mateo County Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association aren’t expected to take the matter lightly having funneled nearly $1 million into campaigns opposing similar provisions in San Mateo County during the last election.
Councilwoman Deirdre Martin, who was elected last November and shifted the weight of the council in favor of the protections, said she knows fear tactics have been used in the past but hopes people recognize it’s about preserving their special community.
“I don’t think this is a political issue, I think it’s a humanitarian issue. I think it’s more about taking care of our community, and Pacifica is a tight-knit community,” Martin said. “There’s some claims that this is creating divisiveness with the landlord-tenant community, I believe the fear people are living in right now is the real divisive issue.”
Mayor Mike O’Neill voted against the moratorium noting he’s concerned about the nearly $600,000 annual cost of running such a program. As the state apartment association lobbyist group has a history of suing other cities where such provisions have recently passed — including Mountain View and Richmond — he noted that could further add to the city’s financial troubles that include recovering from recent storm damage. A real estate agent himself, O’Neill argued it would also unfairly shift the burden onto property owners.
“I think it’s unfair to the property owner. We’re a small city that has its fiscal issues and it’s going to cost us [to administer the program],” he said. “You put rent control on private citizens for affordable housing, that’s what rent control is.”
O’Neill added they don’t want to disincentivize new construction, or encourage landlords to turn to short-term rentals, as was the case when residents of an entire apartment building were evicted before it was converted into an Airbnb.
But while there’s dispute even amongst councilmembers about the efficacy of tenant protections, Martin and O’Neill agreed there’s a housing crisis and affordability challenges for many residents remain.
Renters make up about a third of Pacifica households and more than half of the tenants are low-income earners. Asking rents increased 51 percent between 2010 and 2015 while the average household income has only increased 2.7 percent, according to a city staff report. As far as demand, like others in the Bay Area, construction in Pacifica also hasn’t kept pace. The city hasn’t issued a building permit for a new multi-family housing complex for five or more units since 2013, according to the report.
But the topic of constructing new housing, especially denser multi-family housing, typically doesn’t bode well with coastsiders. O’Neill noted the pushback on projects such as MidPen Housing’s proposed affordable housing development in El Granada.
“It’s supply and demand, the market forces,” he said. “I think the cities really have to look for higher density, the days of the single-family home on a 5,000-square-foot lot are gone.”
But when it comes time to build, even county officials remarked this week that getting projects approved in cities is extremely challenge when people find out it’s happening in their backyards.
Thursday Roberts, who has lived in her Pacifica apartment for more than 16 years, agreed more supply is needed. But she noted building takes time and it doesn’t solve the immediate crisis tenants are facing. A few years ago, a foreign investment company bought the apartment building she lives in and she now feels “lucky” her rent only increased 25 percent over the last year. But others haven’t been so fortunate, and for many of her neighbors on fixed incomes, such increases are becoming intolerable, said Roberts, a member of the group Fair Rents 4 Pacifica.
“Pacifica historically has been sort of a blue-collar working folk sort of town. The elderly people who are my neighbors are people who have lived here for 56 years,” Roberts said, adding fear is the common feeling amongst tenants. “We’ve seen a lot of displacement already. … It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
She and Martin noted high rates of retired people and former teachers can’t afford the steep increases, while some are forced to cut back on buying food or paying for medicine. Others have had to go back to work after retiring, they said. Roberts said tenants are fearful of retaliation for speaking out, and even she’s gotten to the point where she takes care of her apartment maintenance herself.
“Most of the time landlords show up and say ‘I’m a good landlord, I don’t overcharge my tenant, I maintain the building.’ Well, in that case they really don’t have to worry about rent stabilization because they’re not charging ridiculous rents. Unfortunately, what’s happened is that real estate has become an investment vehicle, it’s not small mom-and-pops anymore,” she said.
Property owners and landlords have showed up in droves to meetings opposing similar proposals across the Bay Area, and SAMCAR’s Government Affairs Director Gina Zari said Monday’s meeting marked the third time in Pacifica since December 2015.
Their concerns include just cause evictions making it nearly impossible to evict those who disrupt their neighbors, the inability for landlords to receive returns on their investment and how rent control hasn’t solved the housing crisis in San Francisco.
“Time and time again, Pacificans have told the council, ‘no rent control in Pacifica!’” Zari said in an email. “When is the Pacifica City Council going to listen to its residents?”
Martin said she knows there are varied perspectives and hopes voters educate themselves before casting judgments.
“People should have a stake in the game,” Martin said, adding she hopes people “listen to both sides, and listen with an open mind and an open heart. Especially in today’s political climate.”
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Note to readers: This article has been amended to clarify it was the California Apartment Association that has filed lawsuits against Richmond and Mountain View's rent control measures.