In what could be a first step toward resolving the city’s housing crisis, Fremont City Council directed staff Tuesday to research possible but controversial remedies such as rent control and just-cause evictions.
Throughout the year at city council meetings, members of a coalition of 52 organizations representing more than 28,000 Fremont families known as Residents Insisting on Social Equity for Fremont, or R.I.S.E. Fremont, have told the council there is a critical need to protect tenants from escalating rents that have priced many families out of the city and forced those who remain to struggle.
Councilman Vinnie Bacon, who requested the research, said he hopes staff will investigate “what the options are and what we can do.”
“I don’t know all the facts, I don’t know what are the best solutions, but I think it’s definitely worthwhile to have staff look into this issue and I would encourage us to have staff do just that,” he added.
While Vice Mayor Suzanne Chan and Councilwoman Lilly Mei expressed support for Bacon’s request, others like Councilman Rick Jones questioned whether a rent control ordinance is the solution.
“I know that there is a crisis of housing throughout our region,” Jones said. “I am not so sure that an actual rent control ordinance is the solution to that.”
Jones suggested making developers provide a higher amount of affordable units in upcoming residential developments and perhaps strengthening the city’s residential rent increase dispute resolution ordinance.
Effective since August 1997, the ordinance applies to all housing units, including apartments, condominiums and single-family homes. It outlines steps tenants and property owners can take to resolve rent increase disputes.
For example, to request conciliation services within 15 days of receiving a rent increase notice, tenants can contact mediation services at (510) 733-4945 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit fremont.gov/rridro.
Mayor Bill Harrison echoed Jones’ comments.
“I’m generally not a fan of rent control because I don’t see where it’s worked well down the road,” he said. “With that said, I think there are some solutions that our staff can take a look at.”
Harrison said he would prefer staff look internally first before exploring what other Bay Area cities are doing and working with the rental housing industry to seek solutions.
Sixteen people addressed the council. Many shared their personal hardships from having to pay rising rents while their wages have stayed the same. Others who own or manage rental properties in the city said rent control is not the panacea some believe it is.
Daniel Fries, of Fremont-based Fries Properties Inc., said he opposes rent control and just-cause evictions. Real estate is not an easy business and can be risky through recessions, he said. Just six year ago, there were many foreclosures and properties could not be rented without letting tenants stay for free for a while.
“Six years, memories are short,” he said. “Things have changed. But it is a hard business. Evictions are not easy. Nobody wants to do them. I don’t want to do them. And when we do they are always, always difficult. Even when the tenant hasn’t paid rent for six months it’s still difficult. It is not an easy way to go,” he said.
Doug Smith, who operates six multi-family buildings in the city, said occupancy plummeted overnight in 2002 when tenants moved out without notice, leaving behind leased furniture and cars when they left the country. Rent fell 25 percent overnight and did not recover to 2002 levels until 2012, while costs kept increasing throughout that period.
“Rent control is not the answer in Fremont,” Smith said. “What it amounts to is cutting off your arm to fix a broken finger. It will fix the problem temporarily. However, it creates many more problems down the road. Rent control is just a subsidy given to every renter in the city and is paid solely by the housing provider. It’s not focused on the ones that really need it, but rather given to everyone who rents in the city. This includes high-income renters who make $150,000 or more a year. We need to focus our efforts directly to those like the elderly, the disabled, the low-income families with children.”
Some rents for a two-bedroom apartment are in the $2,700 range, an increase of $650 from January 2014 to August 2015, said Miriam Keller, of R.I.S.E. Fremont. During that same time, she added, wages have lagged.
The city’s current rent control ordinance “is not enough,” she said. A three-year summary report on the ordinance revealed that mandatory mediation is ineffective, especially when no annual limit is set on rent increases, according to Keller.
From March 2012 to March 2015, tenants and landlords made 1,117 calls regarding rent increases, she said. The number of cases opened for dispute resolution was 171, and the number of disputes resolved through the first step of the process — informal conciliation — was 48. Out of 932 calls by tenants, only 19 received rent reductions, or about 2 percent.
Mediation is the second step of the dispute resolution process, and a three-person fact finding panel appointed by the city to issue a non-binding determination is the third step. The panel is comprised of one tenant representative, one owner representative — neither of whom can be involved in the dispute — and one neutral third party. It is charged with deciding “the reasonableness of the rent increase and the impact of the rent increase on the affected households,” according to the city. The property owner carries the burden of justifying the rent increase.
Fremont contracts with nonprofit Project Sentinel to provide information to landlords and tenants regarding their rights and responsibilities.
The third stage of the rent ordinance unfortunately has not been implemented, said landlord John Sullivan, chairman of the Rental Housing Association’s Rent Mediation Task Force.
“I feel that’s the real hammer,” he said. “That’s where a landlord and a tenant are mandated to appear before a board of their peers.”
Fremont does not need “divisive” rent control, he added.
“Let’s work with what we already have on the books,” Sullivan said.
R.I.S.E. member Tony Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat, said residents throughout the Bay Area are urging their elected officials to provide similar protections.
“It’s a diverse and growing list and it’s great to see Fremont potentially joining it,” he said.
Rent control and just-cause evictions are necessary policy tools to address the housing crisis, according to Samara.
“They are not silver bullets, we know that,” Samara said. “No one denies that over the medium and long term we need to ramp up affordable housing production and raise wages. But there is just no way to address the crisis today without these options on the table. There just isn’t.”
Contact Julian J. Ramos at email@example.com or 408-262-2454 or follow him on twitter.com/julianjramosmp. Visit us on our social media sites at facebook.com/FremontBulletin and twitter.com/FremontBulletin.
(Copy Right: By Julian Ramos, October 15, 2015)