Fremont City Council, except one member, fell under the spell of powerful landlord interests

Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon said last
week that a city rent board ordinance will do
nothing for renters. He supports rent control.

FREMONT CITY COUNCIL
–PUBLIC COMMENT–
Appointed Fremont Councilmember David Bonaccorsi hid behind modest change while striking populist tones. His collegaues on the council meanwhile merely acknowledged the problems associated with rising rents before supporting the creation of five-member Fremont rent board last week. But it was only Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon who called out the ordinance, which, when compared to the more significant rent control discussion last July, is a stark let down for Fremont renters living in the shadow of skyrocketing rents in Silicon Valley.

Bacon, sporting his trademark white suit jacket, called out his colleague, saying their support for the rent board over more stringent rules to protect renters is a “token” gesture. “What we’re doing tonight is basically a token effort to look like we’re doing something, and as others have said, ‘We’re not,'” said Bacon. “This not going to make a significant difference in people’s lives.”

Earlier, Bonaccorsi called for a rent board on steroids. In fact, the end product suggests the steroids had already shrunken the rent board’s testicles before it ever convenes its first meeting. Here’s the problem with the brand of rent boards popping up in places like Fremont or cosmetically strengthened in cities like Alameda and San Leandro: They are the creation of powerful statewide landlords advocates.

Tom Silva is also the chair of the San Leandro
rent review board.

On Tuesday night in Fremont, three East Bay landlords advocates addressed the Fremont City Council on the rent board issue. Southern Alameda County Rental Housing Association board member Tom Silva, its executive director Bill Mulgrew and David Stark from East Bay Realtors Association all offered conciliatory messages. All expressed reasonable support for the rent board proposal. “Landlords need renters and renters need landlords,” said Stark. But there’s a reason why they support rent board all over the Bay Area. It’s because the public, fearful of rising rents and gentrification, wants rent control. Landlord support for rent boards is actually an incredible admission of defeat, a dramatic bid to cut their losses rather than face the prospects of losing the extreme imbalance they hold over renters.

In fact, the same threesome has shown up recently in San Leandro during its recent debate over landlord-paid tenant relocation payments. The browbeating of city staff and councilmembers by Silva, Stark and Mulgrew, also worked in San Leandro. The council ultimately whittled away tenant-friendly portions of the tenant relocation payments ordinance, including a significant decrease in the maximum amount landlords have to pay renters evicted without cause. Silva, who also chairs San Leandro’s own rent review board, famously exhibited the power of landlords over City Hall by literally reading his landlord-friendly amendment in San Leandro directly into a motion.

But it is Alameda that should give Fremont renters pause because while the island city strengthened its Rent Review Advisory Board (RRAC) last year, it still easily usurped by landlords. For instance, in Alameda a threshold for triggering when rent increases are required to be heard by the RRAC can be meaningless. That’s because landlord interests in Alameda, for instance, routinely approach potentially problematic rent increases at apartment building by offering to privately settle the disagreement. This method effectively strips away all transparently in the negotiations and shields the public, the city and the RRAC from any knowledge how the rent increase was remedied. This may or may not adversely affect tenants, but it certainly renders any true data about the rent problem useless, or at least, incomplete.

What we do know from places like Alameda and Richmond is that the California Apartment Association is terrified about the prospects of rent control anywhere in the East Bay. Public support for tenant protections at the ballot box have proven successful, but in every case powerful landlord interests have been able to use great pools of money to nullify the efforts. And when landlords succeed on election day its is always the result of a well-financed effort to confuse the electorate. It happened in the past year in Richmond and Alameda.

So, while the Fremont City Council believes a rent board will protect fearful renters it only proves none of them has every witnessed a hearing in action. Nobody wants to air their personal issues at a public meeting. But the inherent weakness in the rent board model and the reason why landlords always favor their creation is people would rather not risk angering the property owner. Taken one step further, it’s the same principle why a renter might not, for example, report mold growing in the bathroom. The fear is the landord will either raise your rent or worse, toss you out on the street.

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