Marin rent control could help preserve affordable housing, proponents say


Dick Heine stands in the garage of his home in Contempo Marin in San Rafael. The community just won a 14-year legal battle to keep rent control in effect in the mobile home park. Frankie Frost — Marin Independent Journal
Dick Heine said his rent would have jumped from $800 to $1,925 without rent control at the Contempo Marin mobile home park.Frankie Frost — Marin Independent Journal

Dick Heine stood in his driveway enjoying the sunshine and the bird calls at Contempo Marin mobile home park — something he might not have been able to do without rent control.

“I pay $800 a month,” the San Rafael resident said. “I’m on a fixed income. If my rent was raised to $1,925 (market rate), I would be hard-pressed to pay it.” Contempo is one of the few places in Marin with rent control. About 1,000 people live in the 397 homes at the park, where the average space rent is $800, Heine said. He guesses that about one-third of his neighbors couldn’t afford to live there without rent control.

“We’re all big fans of it,” said Heine, who is president of the Contempo Marin Homeowners Association.

As Marin officials contemplate ways to boost affordable housing, enacting rent control or “stabilization” programs in unincorporated areas was proposed as an option at an Oct. 13 workshop of the county Board of Supervisors. No decisions were made, and the issue will be discussed at meetings to come.

The report from county planning staffers mentioned at least a half-dozen other proposals, including buying market-rate homes for conversion to affordable housing and easing second-unit regulations. Rent control, however, is the option that could be put into place the quickest with the most widespread impact, planners say.

“We’re estimating that it could impact roughly 4,000 multifamily units immediately just in the unincorporated areas,” said planner Alisa Stevenson, who issued the report with Brian Crawford, head of the Community Development Agency.

Neither Marin’s municipalities nor its unincorporated areas have rent control for multifamily housing. Novato has a rent control ordinance for its mobile home parks, which include Marin Valley Mobile Country Club, owned by the city, and Los Robles Mobile Home Park.

The residents of Contempo and the city of San Rafael fought a long battle to retain that city’s rent control ordinance for the trailer park there.

SUIT OVERTURNED

While Contempo Marin residents own their homes, they lease space from Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., the owner of the north San Rafael mobile home park. The city’s ordinance, enacted in 1989, is meant to keep the mobile home park affordable.

Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. filed suit against the city about 14 years ago. The suit alleged that the rent control ordinance was unconstitutional and a government “taking” of private property. Equity LifeStyle won that suit.

“It caused a great deal of consternation here,” Heine recalled. “The city bravely appealed it to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it was overturned.” Undeterred, Equity LifeStyle took it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court hammered the final nail in the coffin in January 2014 by declining to hear Equity LifeStyle’s challenge of the ordinance.

“We are very grateful to the city,” Heine said. The retiree said Equity LifeStyle would prefer that he pay $1,925, which it deems market rate, but such an increase is not possible under rent control.

“Rent control gives you protection against unreasonable rent increases,” Heine said.

HOUSING SUPPLY

The owner of a longtime Marin property management company agrees that tenants shouldn’t endure unreasonable rents, but doesn’t believe rent control is the answer.

“The problem is that Marin County doesn’t have enough housing, and putting in rent control is not going to give us more units,” said Melissa Prandi, proprietor of San Rafael-based Prandi Property Management, a 33-year-old property management firm that handles 450 units in Marin. If rent control were to be enacted, it would not significantly affect Prandi Property Management. The company concentrates on single-family homes, with just a few multifamily units.

Under the state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, rent control can only be applied to multifamily units built before 1995. It can’t be applied to single-family homes or condos, and when a tenant leaves, there is no limit to how high the landlord can raise the rent.

“Our supply is low and our demand is high,” Prandi said of Marin’s rental situation. The county had a 94.4 percent occupancy rate in the second quarter of this year, according to Novato-based data service Real Answers.

AVERAGE RENT

The average asking rent for large apartment complexes in Marin was $2,521 a month in the second quarter of this year, up 13 percent from $2,232 a year ago.

“We need more housing, more of those second units,” Prandi said. Easing second-unit regulations was one of the approaches discussed at the Oct. 13 meeting.

“In San Rafael, for instance, people don’t like infill. But it’s a natural to be able to live and work” in the community,” Prandi said. She is hoping to participate in educational programs that would help dispel some of the knee-jerk reactions to ideas like infill-building on vacant lots amid older, existing properties in established urban neighborhoods.

“I’ve been in the business 33 years. I believe in treating people the way I would like to be treated,” Prandi said. “We don’t raise rents more than once a year, and we don’t raise them more than 10 percent.” She sees this approach as a sort of gentleman’s agreement. Many Marin landlords and property managers are party to this agreement, she said.

“Long-term tenants are what everybody wants,” and by keeping rent hikes low, tenants will stay longer, she said.

Rent control has its pitfalls, Prandi said.

“Landlords tend to do less maintenance. They think, ‘I’m only getting a small amount of rent, so I’m not going to upgrade or maintain my property,’” Prandi said. “The price of upkeep goes up, but the rent does not.”

PROPERTY UPGRADES

Stevenson, the county planner, said this could be addressed.

“Most places (with rent control) have an exception to that,” Stevenson said.

She said that if a property owner makes capital improvements to their property, say a new roof, they can make an argument to the governing body that they have made an additional investment and should be able to go above whatever is the allowable increase to make up for the cost.

One of the biggest advantages of rent control is that it could be put into place quickly with next to no cost, and have a widespread impact, Stevenson said.

“Marin does not have to have 30 employees dedicated to rent control and a board,” the planner said, referring to Berkeley’s set-up.

Seven Bay Area cities have rent control. The strongest programs are in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and East Palo Alto, sharply limiting rent increases and forbidding evictions without just cause. Hayward and Los Gatos limit rent increases to 5 percent per year, and San Jose, which lacks eviction protections, prohibits annual rent increases above 8 percent.

“We could come up with a model that doesn’t require that amount of infrastructure or funding,” she said.

Instead of having an actual rent board or governing body, it could be managed by existing staff members, with the onus on the tenant to contact the agency and say their rent was increased by too much, Stevenson said.

“It could be introduced as a three-year pilot program to see how it goes. There could be a built-in sunset. There are a lot of different options,” the planner said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janis MaraJanis Mara covers education for the Marin IJ. She has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times and Adweek, winning awards for business coverage, live-blogging and investigative work. Reach the author atjmara@marinij.com or follow Janis on Twitter: @jmara.