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Editorial: Decisions on Fairfax renter protections, rent control should go before voters now

Marin IJ Editorial Board

Aug 14, 2023

Fairfax voters will have plenty of time to think over whether “tenant protection measures” – including rent control – approved by the Town Council should be rescinded.

Fairfax voters will have plenty of time to think over whether “tenant protection measures” – including rent control – approved by the Town Council should be rescinded.

The council is putting the matter on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot – when the next town council elections are scheduled.

It is also likely that as a ballot topped by a presidential election, voter turnout will be much greater than if the town had chosen to hold a special election.

But it would be better to resolve this debate sooner than have it fester and divide community politics for the next 15 months. The ballot is the best place to settle this debate. The estimated cost of a special election –  an estimated $47,000 to $59,000 – is a small civic investment compared to other town expenses.

At issue is an initiative seeking to overturn the council’s approval of local rules that toughen rent control and include a local just-cause-for-eviction ordinance.

Critics of those rules managed to get enough signatures from local voters to get it on the ballot.

They needed 588 signatures, but got 966.

Among their complaints is that the council did not reach out to all stakeholders, especially landlords, to get public feedback before putting the new rules on the town’s books.

Two other Marin towns that are considering similar measures have taken a lot more time.

California already has a rent control law in place, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which caps annual rent increases at 5% plus inflation. The maximum annual increase, under the state law, is 10%.

For a tenant paying rent of $2,000 per month, a $200 increase is significant.

Local towns and governmental agencies aren’t innocent bystanders in this debate. Local tax measures such as bond measures and parcel taxes are passed onto renters through their rents.

If there is a new political wrinkle to rent control, it’s the growing number of middle-class residents, including many senior citizens, who are paying high rents subject to significant annual increases.

Living in Marin is becoming unaffordable for them. They can’t afford to buy a home and they are feeling priced out of their apartments by rising rents and limited affordable local options should they have to move.

At the same time, there are many landlords of apartments and multi-residential-unit rentals who, over the years, have charged reasonable rents. How will local rent control affect the value of their property, the rental income on which they depend or need to meet the mortgage payments they have?

Local officials don’t like to publicly consider property values in their decision-making equations. That is, unless a local school district is trying to sell voters on a school tax.

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Even before voters have their say, the Town Council is already considering revising the town law to allow a slightly higher annual rent increase.

The law it passed late last year allowed increases of no more than 60% of the regional consumer price index. Now, the council is considering changing that cap to 75% of the index. The annual adjustment cannot be less than 0% or greater than 5%.

That the council is already considering revising the rules raises the question of whether it was ready for approval in November, when the ordinance was passed.

Backers of the petition also criticize the “just cause eviction” rule that would hinder their legal leeway to evict tenants.

While the existing ordinance is already on the town’s books, there are questions regarding enforcement.

This is an issue that affects property rights, tenants and the local economy. Before approving the ordinance, council members should have felt secure that all stakeholders were informed and involved.

The political backlash that has put it on the ballot is now making sure of that.

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