Just-cause eviction policy proposed as alternative solution

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors recently held a special study session to examine possible responses to the Peninsula’s ongoing housing crunch. But while rent control was among the topics discussed, Supervisor Dave Pine said the board’s response to the idea seemed “lukewarm.”

Although the supervisors directed county staff to research several aspects of how rent control might be implemented, local activists charged that not enough resources are being allocated to the issue.

Aracely Mondragon, spokeswoman for San Francisco Organizing Project-Peninsula Interfaith Action, said her organization plans to protest Saturday afternoon in front of the St. Matthew Catholic Church in San Mateo, where they hope to raise awareness about the impacts skyrocketing rents have on residents.

Parts of East Palo Alto, along with certain mobile home parks, are currently the only places in San Mateo County that have rent control, and the county only has the authority to impose similar limits in unincorporated areas, such as North Fair Oaks and parts of the Coastside near Half Moon Bay.

But Mondragon said the possible benefits of rent control in those areas should not be minimized. “They were saying this would only benefit a couple thousand families,” the community organizer noted, “To us, that’s a lot.”

Rent-control proponents might face an uphill battle, however, as some organizations representing property owners are vocally opposed to such measures. San Mateo County Association of Realtors spokesman Paul Stewart claimed rent control creates inequities, where arbitrary criteria dictate that some tenants enjoy artificially low rents, while others don’t.

Stewart added that rent control could indefinitely keep off the market housing units that would have otherwise become available. “If you are one of the few fortunate enough to acquire a rent-controlled apartment, you’re not likely to move,” Stewart noted.

Because rent control can potentially deprive property owners of adequate revenues, it encourages landlords to delay needed repairs, which can make dwellings unsafe, Stewart claimed.

But Mondragon countered that even without rent control, some landlords fail to provide safe living conditions. “A lot of maintenance is not being done right now, yet the families in those buildings are still facing one hundred percent rent increases,” the activist noted.

While winning approval for rent control might prove difficult, the board also discussed other strategies for mitigating the housing crisis. Supervisor Don Horsley noted that the county’s two-year budget includes $12 million for building affordable housing, and said he’s called for the creation of another fund to help nonprofit organizations purchase buildings currently offering below-market-rate housing, in order to preserve them.

A forgivable loan program that would help landlords perform upgrades in exchange for agreeing to keep their rents affordable is another strategy the county should consider, Horsley said.

The supervisor also said the county should consider a bond measure to build 20,000 affordable units.

However, Horsley and Pine both agreed that officials in Peninsula cities have historically been reluctant to approve the kinds of high-density buildings that would be large enough to significantly add to the housing supply. Pine said staff would also look at a host of protections that typically accompany rent control legislation, but that could be implemented even without rent control. One idea Pine put forth was to look at whether a “just cause” eviction policy could be adopted. Currently, Peninsula landlords can evict tenants without providing a reason, while a just cause policy would limit the circumstances under which a tenant could be legally evicted. Pine said staff is also studying whether landlords could be legally required to give tenants the option of signing one-year leases.

The most promising thing on the horizon, according to Pine, is the possibility of using commercial impact fees to force developers to fund affordable housing. The supervisor noted that over the next four years, roughly 17 million square feet of commercial and office space would be built in the county.

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