City Council Debates Rent Control: Juggles Urgency, Uncertainty


As rising rents spread north through Oakland and Berkeley, Richmond’s City Council has begun intense debate about whether to institute rent control in Richmond – and if so, how.  At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Council sought to balance the desire to stabilize rent quickly with the need to do so carefully, so as not to throw Richmond’s rental market into further disarray.

Yet, the City Council – as well as the public – remains divided on whether rent control policies will truly succeed in protecting low-income residents from a changing economy.

After City Manager Bill Lindsay presented the City’s proposed models for rent control – based largely on existing models in Berkeley, Hayward, and Santa Monica – Councilmember Vinay Pimplé asked, “Have you done any research to find evidence that these policies work?” 

Lindsay replied that, no, city staff had not been able to conduct a historical analysis proving that rents had stabilized in those areas, but that staff could do such research if given the time.

If anything was at the center of Tuesday’s disjointed discussion, it was a collective anxiety about time: making sure that City Council and staff have time to do due diligence, while being mindful that they may not have time to waste. 

To rent control advocates, this sense of urgency is not unfounded.  Rents for apartments in Richmond’s large complexes – 50 units or more – have risen 24% over the past four years.  Further, many in Richmond are warily eyeing the skyrocketing rents in nearby San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.

“The point here is to slow down gentrification,” said Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin.  “We know it’s coming – it’s come to San Francisco; it’s come to Oakland.”  McLaughlin added that, in those cities, rent stabilization “has succeeded in protecting lower income tenants from displacement.”

Not all councilmembers, however, agreed that this is true.  Though there was no disagreement that the Council ought to protect Richmond renters from unfair rent increases without putting undue hardship on landlords, councilmembers were sharply divided about whether traditional rent control policies would succeed in doing so.

Pimplé brought his own research to the table on Tuesday night, passing out graphs and charts in an attempt to show that implementing rent control would create segregation. 

Councilmember Eduardo Martinez shot down this assertion, saying that Pimple’s data did not support the conclusion that he was attempting to make: “Data can be misleading, and data, unless examined thoroughly, is useless.”

The Council lacked sufficient information about the potential implications of rent control in Richmond; nevertheless, the task in front of them was to run through the two potential rent control models item-by-item, giving direction to city staff as they draft the ordinances for review on July 21.  Mayor Tom Butt voiced annoyance at this break from standard discussion procedure: “We will follow this procedure, but I don’t like it.“

Councilmembers appeared confused and unmoored by the idea that Tuesday’s votes were simply to provide feedback to staff, rather than to make policy.  Repeatedly, city staff had to clarify that the Council’s votes were simply to provide suggestions, and that anything not passed by the Council on Tuesday would be left to the discretion of staff as they draft the potential rent control ordinances.

As discussion wound down, this lack of consequence seemed to provide creative license. At the meeting’s end, McLaughlin moved to suggest that the Council itself would function as Richmond’s rent board until November 2016, when a rent board could be elected by voters.  The motion passed 4-2, with Butt and Pimplé in abstention.

“Well,” commented Butt, “this is gonna be fun.”

Council will reconvene to review the potential rent control ordinances on Tuesday, July 21.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


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