Burlingame Rent Control Moves to November Ballot: Council Unanimously Approves Measure

Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Austin Walsh
San Mateo Daily Journal

Burlingame residents will decide whether to establish rent control and other tenant protections on the upcoming November ballot, under a decision by the City Council.

The Burlingame City Council unanimously agreed during a meeting Monday, Aug. 1, to float during the fall election an effort to implement policies which advocates have claimed are necessary to safeguard renters from landlords seeking unfair and unsustainable rent hikes.

Voters will be asked on Election Day to repeal Measure T, the city’s ordinance disallowing the council from regulating the rental market, and replace it with a variety of renter-friendly policies such as guaranteeing just cause eviction protections, rent stabilization and relocation assistance requirements for those displaced, under the council’s approval.

Cindy Cornell, president of Burlingame Advocates for Renter Protections, said she supported the council moving ahead with putting the measure on the fall ballot.

“We feel the council should uphold the democratic process,” she said.

If approved by voters, property owners could not increase rents at a pace higher than the rate of inflation and they would also be required to offer displaced tenants three months worth of rent payments that could be spent toward finding another place to live.

Tenants facing evictions would be granted greater power under the implementation of just cause eviction policies as well. Measure T, approved by voters in 1987, would be removed from the city’s books. An independent commission would also be formed which informs city policy regarding the local rental market.

Some property owners suggested the rent control initiative would result in unintended consequences, such as penalizing honest landlords who have not gouged their residents by limiting their capacity to receive adequate return on their considerable investment.

Erik Winkler, a local Realtor, spoke against rent control and suggested such a policy has caused some of the high cost of living in cities such as San Francisco, where similar initiatives are in place.

Councilman Michael Brownrigg said though he agreed he felt the proposed ballot initiative was deeply flawed, due to concerns it is too far reaching, he supported allowing it to move ahead to the fall election.

“This is bad legislation,” he said.

The Burlingame Advocates for Renters Protections submitted the more than the 2,332 signatures necessary to put their proposal onto the presidential election ballot, and received confirmation from city and county elections officials last month those were enough to quality.

To reach the ballot, the initiative overcame a legal challenge by attorneys hired by the California Apartments Association, who claimed advocates violated state election law when collecting petition signatures to bring the measure before the council.

Ashlee Titus, the association’s attorney, filed a letter last month claiming the advocacy group’s effort was illegitimate, as the petition did not include the full text of Measure T, depriving voters of the ability to make an informed decision before signing, which would violate the state’s election code.

Burlingame City Attorney Kathleen Kane though said she believed the petition campaign was legal, as a reasonable voter could discern the aim of the initiative.

“It appears the better understanding of our duty under the election code is to certify this,” said Kane.

Councilwoman Emily Beach agreed with Kane’s judgement, in advance of the unanimous vote in support of authorizing the validity of the ballot measure.

“It is our duty to put this forth, in my opinion,” she said.

Kane said there could be a pre-election legal challenge made to the council’s decision which may result in the initiative being delayed past state’s Friday, Aug. 12, deadline to qualify for the fall election ballot.

But under the council’s immediate decision, the Burlingame measure is set to join a similar initiative in San Mateo on the fall ballot, under an approval Monday, Aug. 1, by the San Mateo City Council. Mountain View, Richmond and Alameda are among Bay Area communities which will feature rent control initiatives in the coming election too.

The Burlingame City Council had an opportunity to postpone a decision on the rent control effort by directing city staff to return in coming weeks with more information. Had the council selected such an option, the initiative likely would have missed the fall ballot, as it would have failed to meet the state’s deadline to qualify.

Many property owners had advocated for the council to order the report and temporarily delay allowing the measure to move ahead, due to interest of making as much information as possible available to interested voters.

Under such a decision, the council would have needed to call another election, likely costing the city approximately $145,000, roughly $90,000 more than allowing it to go on the fall ballot.

Ultimately, the council opted to float the measure onto the upcoming ballot and receive a later informal report detailing specifics regarding how the proposed policies may take hold on the local real estate and rental market.

Mayor Ann Keighran identified a variety of concerns regarding the potential costs associated with the implementation of the measure, especially as it relates to the formation of the rental commission which would be established under its approval.

City Manager Lisa Goldman said the city will hire a consulting firm to author the pending report, and it will be presented to council as soon as possible.

Daniel Saver, an attorney representing the rent control advocates, called the opportunity to request a second report without delaying the ballot measure a win-win solution, as it allowed residents and city officials to collect more information while allowing the initiative to move ahead as proposed.

Beach expressed a similar notion, that officials could order getting the information they need, while allowing the measure to move ahead as intended.

“We can still get this information, get it on the ballot in November and save the city another $90,000,” she said.

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