Every time we think rent stabilization is safely established in Mountain View, a new obstacle arises. This fall’s Council election poses a new threat, due to the increase in apartment vacancies.

Voters passed Measure V, 53% to 47%, in November 2016. But it was not immediately implemented because housing investors (landlords) took the city to court. The court threw out the lawsuit.

Next, the anti-rent-control city council majority appointed an anti-rent-control majority to the Rental Housing Committee (RHC). The RHC took steps to weaken rent regulation. Most notably, it ignored its own lawyers and excluded mobile homes from Measure V.

In 2018, the California Apartment Association (CAA, corporate landlords) circulated a petition that I labeled the “Sneaky Repeal.” Tenants and their advocates organized, discouraging voters from signing, and the CAA failed to make the November 2018 ballot. The City Council scheduled their measure for November 2020, but the landlords withdrew the proposal because it was doomed to certain, overwhelming defeat.

Ignoring the testimony of apartment renters and mobile home owners, the City Council majority placed Measure D on the March 2020 ballot. Supported by the CAA and three candidates in this fall’s election, it would have seriously undermined Measure V. Voters rejected it 70% to 30%.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has created yet another obstacle. Measure V contains a little-known safety valve or loophole:

Section 1718. - Decontrol.

If the average annual vacancy rate in Controlled Rental Units exceeds five percent (5%), the Committee is empowered, at its discretion and in order to achieve the objectives of this Article, to suspend the provisions of this Article. In determining the vacancy rate for Controlled Rental Units, the Committee shall consider all available data and shall conduct its own survey. If the Committee finds that the average annual vacancy rate has thereafter fallen below five percent (5%) the provisions of this Article shall be reimposed.

This made sense in normal times. If the housing supply were to rise or demand were to fall, a vacancy rate of 5% might mean that the market would hold down most rents.

However, the pandemic and associated economic hardships has forced many tenants to leave town. The city says our vacancy rate is 7.2%. That’s plausible, given the number of empty apartments I’ve been noticed while delivering campaign fliers.

If the RHC confirms the high vacancy rate, then it has the authority to suspend rent control. That’s where the Council election comes into play. The landlords are supporting the incumbents in their ally in the hope that they will appoint an RHC that will vote to suspend rent control.

Suspending the provisions of Measure V could seriously hurt those Mountain View tenants who are hanging on, despite the pandemic and recession. Rents are down right now, but they are likely to jump back up once the pandemic ends. Without Measure V remaining in force, landlords would again be able to charge what the market bears. And everyone knows what that means!