Alameda debates rent control practices



By Lillian Lee Follrath, CONTRIBUTOR

Rent is higher than ever. The California city of Alameda is answering to the issue of low-income tenants suffering under the weight of skyrocketing rent.
Tenants, landlords, and city staff gathered at 6:30 p.m. on June 6 for a “special” community open house meeting led by Debby Potter, a self-titled “city staff member” who is known as a department head for Alameda’s Rent Stabilization Program.
City rent rates have escalated, and with a large percentage of landlords unconcerned with a tenants inability to keep up financially, a large population of residents are in jeopardy of losing their homes.
“The meeting concerned publicly proposed amendments to the current rent stabilization laws,” Potter stated.
On June 4, a just cause ordinance was established preventing no cause eviction, which is eviction without a reasonable explanation.
Constructive eviction, also recently restricted, is a more naturally occurring eviction utilized in renovating and bumping rent to market price. Landlords raise rents above market price or at a high rate to drive out low-pay tenants. If the tenant can prove their income to be much lower than the rent, landlords must pay a tenant out at the rate of one month’s rent for every year residing, limited to four years accumulated.
Potter specified an average tenant turnover rate of six years, equating to a 1.4 percent vacancy rate, which is 3.6 percent below healthy city vacancy, according to Potter. These figures “produced by the US Community Survey Census” were widely speculated by the Landlords at the meeting.
“Under the current rent stabilization laws, there is no means test mandated for landlord or tenant,” Potter stated in an interview.
Landlords at the meeting, during question and answer, publicly asked on several separate occasions how one could confirm, with a means test, that their tenant was lot lying, begging the same of landlords.
“Reasons behind rent inflation are to maintain consistency with landlord cost and property value inflation, suggesting disproportion in the figure increase. The recent passing of Ballot Proposition 13 (limiting property taxation to within one percent of its assessed value) is consistent with the feeling of need to protect tenants from unreasonable rates, especially families, disabled people, and low-income people who all contribute to population diversity,” said Ezra Denny, a tenant and longtime resident of Alameda.
Effective July 2, an annual cap will be placed on the cities rent increase rates, preventing landlords from raising rents above the designated cap percentage without petition to internal staff, a hearing officer, the courts, or an advisory board. These considerations exclude single-family apartments and condos, which is a huge population in need of the cap. This cap is referred to as a flat rate cost method used by two of the eight major East Bay cities.
In aid of landlords extenuating costs, landlords may employ the “pass through cost” system, passing 50 percent of certain costs, such as uninsured property repair, to the tenant. This is also something that must be approved through internal staff, a hearing officer, the courts, or a rent advisory board.
Potter stated that the issue is with the next determination of the City Council, specifically if they will decide to amend for future declaration, the current rent cap.
At the conclusion of the meeting, attendees were asked to walk around the room, gallery style, and do a social vote on certain rent stabilization issues. The majority of attendees voted not to have city staff judge the petitions, but instead to use a hearing officer to determine who should approve a request by a landlord to raise rents above the yearly cap.
The difference here is that a hearing officer judges specific financial situations tailored to individuals, whereas city staff does not specialize in determinations of rent petition, as a hearing officer is. The goal of the Rent Stabilization Committee is to better the financial state of the city, so there will be many factors to weigh in the determination to come, Potter stated.