Polls by landlord group influenced council’s rent control measure

by Eric Strimling

(This article was published the day after the Alameda city council voted to start work on a ballot measure to compete with Measure M1.)


Wed, Jul 20, 2016

Polls by landlord group influenced council’s rent control measure

by Mark Noack / Mountain View Voice

Mountain View City Council members gave plenty of reasons for why they decided to draft a hasty rent-control ballot measure last week, but one that was barely mentioned was information from an undisclosed pair of surveys commissioned by the California Apartment Association.

Two separate sets of polling data reportedly showed widespread concern among likely Mountain View voters over the local rental housing crisis as well as a willingness to do something about it. Voters, according to the data, were inclined to approve a rent-control measure regardless of what actions had been taken by elected leaders in recent months. In other words, a rent-control measure by the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, which would essentially tie rent increases to rises in the Consumer Price Index, stood a good chance of being approved by voters in November.

“Voters would still vote for some form of rent control regardless of whether they were told the city had done a number of things,” Councilman Mike Kasperzak said in an interview with the Voice. “Even if the city had adopted a rent-control measure, that message wouldn’t get through. The voters would say: ‘Fine, but we want to weigh in on this situation.”

But the polls also indicated something else, Kasperzak said. Voters weren’t necessarily interested in an aggressive rent-control package. If a second, “less-intrusive” alternative was put onto the ballot, then most voters would likely favor that one, he said.

Kasperzak and Mayor Pat Showalter were both informed of the polls and their conclusions, and collaborated to call a special meeting last week. Showalter delivered a report she co-authored with Kasperzak recommending that the council put forward an alternative ballot measure. In the end, four of the six council members at the July 14 meeting voted in favor of drafting an alternative based on a previously rejected binding-arbitration program. They did this despite vociferous complaints from tenants’ advocates that this would split the vote and cause both initiatives to lose.

The surveys were commissioned by the California Apartment Association, a landlord-advocacy group that bills itself as the nation’s largest statewide organization representing the rental housing industry, and is strongly opposed to any form of rent control.

The apartment association is poised to spend “several millions of dollars” this election season to defeat policies throughout the state, such as rent control, that they deem as hostile, said Joshua Howard, the association’s vice president. That would include Mountain View’s citizen-backed rent control measure, as well as any potential binding-arbitration plan, he said. Landlords perceive the two as being essentially the same thing, he said.

In an interview with the Voice, Howard confirmed that his organization shared polling data with some Mountain View City Council members prior to the special meeting. He declined to describe that data or share it with the Voice because it was considered “confidential.”

“We shared some information about the climate in Mountain View,” he told the Voice. “I wish I could share that information with you, but I can’t.”

Howard said he couldn’t speak to why city leaders called the special meeting or why they decided to draft a dueling ballot measure. For now, CAA officials are waiting to see what city officials include in any binding-arbitration proposal before they take a stance on the issue, he said. City staff is working on the ballot measure and the council is set to act on whether to place it on the Nov. 8 ballot at a special Aug. 9 meeting.

“We appreciate the Council’s willingness to explore other options, but it’s difficult to comment on a ballot measure that’s still being drafted,” he said.

Showalter said she heard about the polling results from a number of sources, and she described it as “hearsay,” she said. When asked if she knew who was conducting the polling, she declined to say.

“I’m going to keep that to myself,” she told the Voice.

Both Kasperzak and Showalter say they saw no reason to be skeptical of the poll results, regardless of the political stance of its source. The poll results showing voters’ support for rent control seemed like an accurate bellwether of the community, especially given the recent news that 7,300 Mountain View voters signed a petition for a ballot measure. Showalter said.

Councilmen John McAlister and Chris Clark, the other supporters of the city’s ballot alternative, did not immediately respond to questions about whether they received any polling information from the apartment association. Councilman Ken Rosenberg told theVoice that the first he knew of a survey being conducted was when pollsters called to ask him to answer questions.

Joan MacDonald, an organizer with the Mountain View Tenants Coalition said she wasn’t surprised to hear that California Apartment Association (CAA) may have influenced council members prior to their decision.

“We’re facing deep pockets with the CAA, but an alternative like what the city is proposing is not really a protective measure compared to our charter amendment,” she said. “We’re just going to follow through with whatever happens after Aug. 9 and launch as strong a campaign as we can.”

The Tenants Coalition conducted its own polling, and determined that 69 percent of Mountain View voters supported restricting rents and enacting just-cause eviction protections.

For her part, Showalter said the real impetus for her decision to call a special meeting was when she learned the Tenants Coalition’s ballot measure would qualify for the November election. It wasn’t a hypothetical anymore, and city officials had to quickly decide if they wanted to present voters with another option, she said.

“I know that people are going to say (the city’s measure) is a spoiler, but we want a system that’s good for the long haul,” she said. “There’s so many things that could pass through the initiative process and only later on do you find out that they don’t work well.”

Kasperzak said CAA’s polls did play a role in his decision to seek a ballot alternative, and he briefly referred to the survey results at last week’s council meeting, the first public indication that such data existed and had been shown to city officials. Kasperzak said the city needed to offer voters an alternative because the citizen-backed measure would have been a charter amendment, making it irrevocable except by another ballot vote.

He dismissed the criticism from tenants’ advocates that the city’s alternative could be a ploy to split the vote.

“They’re entitled to their opinion. I’m entitled to my opinion that a charter amendment is not good policy,” he said. “For me personally, this wasn’t a cynical move, this was an effort to get a less-onerous measure on the ballot.”

The City Council will make a final decision on whether to put forward a ballot measure on Aug. 9. At the same meeting the tenant coalition’s ballot initiative will also formally be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.


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