Power, money influencing both sides of rent control debate in Richmond

A new push to implement rent control in Richmond seeks to qualify the policy for the November ballot. An attempt last year to pass a rent control ordinance failed after being opposed by landlords and three members of a divided City Council. On Tuesday, a group that includes tenants rights advocates, labor unions and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) renewed the effort to install rent control by filing a proposed ballot measure with the city clerk. The proposed ballot measure seeks to establish a rent board in Richmond that would set annual limits on rent increases for renters living in units built before 1995, and would allow tenants to appeal increases. The ballot measure also includes implementing a just cause for eviction policy. The coalition, which calls itself Fair and Affordable Richmond, is now waiting for the city clerk to write a title and summary for their proposed initiative. The city clerk has 15 days to do so. Rent control advocates will then have until June to gather 4,198 to qualify the measure for the November ballot. “The renters of Richmond deserve protection during the current housing crisis, and our coalition believes voters this November should be able to take a stand on the subject of just cause evictions and rent control,” Richmond Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin said in a statement. In August, Richmond City Council, which includes three RPA members, passed a rent control and just cause eviction ordinance while decrying spiking rents they said have been pushing low-income residents out of the city. But the decision was reversed after a petition to repeal the ordinance — backed by the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords — garnered enough signatures from residents. The ordinance was opposed by Mayor Tom Butt and Councilmembers Nat Bates and Vinay Pimple, who have quoted studies by economists showing rent control doesn’t work to keep rents down. They also warned the policy would discourage landlords from investing in improvements on their properties, contributing to further blight in Richmond. Supporters of rent control have a different perspective. ‘The Bay Area housing crisis has already begun to hurt Richmond, and it’s effects will only get worse,” renter Edith Pastrano said.

Influential, deep-pocketed groups are reported to be behind efforts to repeal or maintain Richmond’s recently passed rent control and just cause eviction ordinance.

The ordinance, which passed City Council Aug. 5, has incited heated debate in the streets and on social media. Now, a petition to suspend the ordinance and let voters decide on the policy is being passed around town, fanning flames of supporters and opponents. Powerful backers on both sides of the issue are accusing each other of deliberately misinforming residents.

Over the weekend a petition began circulating in the city calling for a referendum to repeal the ordinance. If about 4,100 signatures are collected and verified, the ordinance will be suspended. City Council will then have to choose whether to repeal the ordinance or to place it on a ballot for voters to decide.

Soon after the petition began circulating, rent control advocates, including the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), cited complaints from residents of petition workers either misleading residents or flat out lying about the policy in order to obtain a signature. Allegations included petitioners telling residents the petition was in support of rent control. Petitioners are paid per signature by Pacific Petition, a San Francisco-based company, according to the Contra Costa Times.

Not all petitioners have been giving misleading information, however. Mayor Tom Butt, who is opposed to rent control, said the petition itself is accurate and he encouraged residents to read it before signing. The mayor also says petitioners are passing out accurate talking points.

The California Apartment Association, a powerful lobbying group representing the state’s landlords, is presumed to be behind the petition, although backers have thus far remained anonymous. For advocates of rent control, this has stoked fears about deep pockets influencing Richmond politics.

If this petition were circulated by volunteers, people who believe in what they are doing, I could respect that as part of democracy in action,” wrote Mike Parker, an RPA member, in a Facebook post, according to the Times. “But the fact that increasingly our referendum and initiative process belongs mainly to folks who consider $50,000 chump change should be of concern to everyone.”

Money and influence, however, are coming from both sides. In reaction to the petition, the powerful local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has more than 45,000 members in Northern California including Richmond city employees, paid for automated calls to residents warning them not to sign the petition. Sources estimate the calls likely cost a few thousand dollars, while the petition drive may cost in the tens of thousands.

SEIU has been a major supporter of rent control from the onset along with other unions, such as AFSCME Local 3299 and California Nurses Association. The effort has also had the support of various community groups and tenants rights advocates, such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and Tenants Together.

Rent control advocates have also been accused of deceptive advertising. The Richmond Standard received an audio file with the robocall stating petitioners are being paid $6 per hour, when at the time the RPA reported elsewhere they were getting $6 per signature. Since then, the rate per signature has apparently increased to $12.50, according to the Times.

The RPA also passed around a flier containing misleading information about rent control, stating it protects 25,000 renters from excessive rent increases when it actually protects less than 10,000. The flyer also suggests suspending the ordinance could cost the city $200,000, but that would only be the case if a special election was required. If the petition succeeds, the issue would most likely be placed on ballot during the regular election cycle in November 2016.

Jeff Wright, a Richmond native, El Cerrito-based real estate broker and outspoken critic of rent control, says the RPA inaccurately depicts the issue. He says he agrees with the RPA’s Parker about the need for a representative form of government, and says the RPA should invite the possibility of the policy going before voters as part of the democratic process.

“The proponents of rent control are always trying to present themselves as having an ‘exclusive right’ and sole ownership of the moral high ground,” Wright said. “However, the information that they distribute is often highly ‘suspect’ if not flat out incorrect. ”

For a breakdown of the complex ordinance, visit here. To view the ordinance itself, go here.