Burlingame Officials Oppose Rent Control Initiative

Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Austin Walsh
San Mateo Daily Journal

City officials oppose Measure R, the ballot initiative attempting to establish rent control in Burlingame, due to concerns the proposed policy is too far-reaching and rife with potential legislative pitfalls, according to the ballot argument.

The City Council released an argument against the ballot initiative Friday, Aug. 19, formally identifying perceived flaws with the effort to repeal Measure T, the policy prohibiting rent control, and replace it with a variety of tenant protections. Alternatively, advocates claim the initiative is necessary to stabilize the Burlingame housing market by offering residents safeguards against unjust rent hikes and tenant evictions.

The city’s position, authored by Councilman Michael Brownrigg, was released weeks after the council authorized floating the rent control initiative to voters on the upcoming fall presidential election ballot Tuesday, Nov. 8.

The proposed policy is too broad, overregulatory and threatens to harm the city’s bottom line, among a variety of other deficiencies, according to the city’s argument.

“Measure R is a deeply flawed, ambiguous ordinance with no legal or financial accountability to residents,” according to the argument. “We urge you to vote no on Measure R.”

Prior to agreeing to put the initiative to voters during a meeting Monday, Aug. 1, the council agreed it would form a unified front in opposition of the proposal and each councilmember subsequently signed the argument against Measure R.

Backers of the ballot initiative though claimed in their supporting argument the policies are necessary to steady the rental market in Burlingame.

“Measure R makes housing costs predictable and stable, freeing Burlingame residents from constant fear of losing their homes,” according to the supporting argument authored by Cynthia Cornell, president of the Burlingame Advocates for Renter Protections. “Rents have skyrocketed in recent years. Wages have not kept pace, putting profound stress on our community. As we lose our family and community members, we lose Burlingame’s quality of life.”

The proposal aims to do away with Measure T, approved by voters in 1987 stripping the council of the power to establish policy regulating the city’s rental market. Measure R, if approved by voters, would fill that void with a variety of renter-friendly policies such as guaranteeing just cause eviction protections, rent stabilization, relocation assistance requirements for those displaced and more.

A primary target of officials is an effort in the ordinance to establish an independent rental housing commission, which according to the opposition argument could result in a variety of harmful unintended consequences.

Under the proposal, the council would appoint all five rental commission members, two of who would be allowed to be landlords or developers and the remaining three would be required to be tenants. The commission would be charged with setting rents at levels considered to be “fair and equitable,” and could have the power to authorize rate adjustments, establish penalties for noncompliance with its regulations, pursue lawsuits when commissioners see fit and a variety of other administrative duties.

To finance its operations, the commission would draw from a rental housing fee charged to landlords and may also be able to request and receive funds “when and if necessary from any available source for its reasonable and necessary expenses,” according to the ballot language.

Cornell in her argument claimed the rental commission would be a useful asset in monitoring the Burlingame rental market and enforcing the statutes of Measure R without burdening the city staff, while Brownrigg offered a contrasting opinion.

“Measure R mandates a rental housing commission; an unaccountable body with the power to asses fees, hire countless staff and lawyers, and sue at will — virtually a blank check,” according to the argument. “The power of taxation should not reside in an unelected body. Moreover, appeals would go directly into San Mateo County’s overburdened courts.”

Beyond the establishment of the commission, Brownrigg’s argument also takes issue with the potential for the policy to regulate the city’s hotel industry, shrink the rental market and in the process harm the local tax base along with placing undue burden on landlords and property owners.

“Burlingame would be poorly served by Measure R, with its unaccountable, expensive rental housing commission and the ensuing legal environment,” according to the argument.

Cornell though argued the new policy is necessary to guarantee a place is preserved in Burlingame for all members of the community.

“Burlingame’s high rents affect everyone. We’re losing teachers. Restaurants can’t find workers. Property values are directly related to the quality of our schools and availability of essential service personnel,” according to the ballot argument. “Together, we can sustain a vibrant and livable Burlingame.”

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