Richmond almost got a rent board Tuesday night.
The city council was scheduled to vote on appointing a five-member rent board, but Mayor Tom Butt removed the item from the agenda during a contentious meeting packed with supporters and opponents of Richmond’s new rent-control ordinance.
The rent board was established by Measure L, a rent-control ordinance passed in November by about 63 percent of voters. The law freezes rent on units occupied before February 1, 1995 at the level they were at on July 21, 2015, though it allows for increases each year based on the Consumer Price Index. It also requires landlords to prove just cause for evictions.
The ordinance has proved a source of controversy for the city, with opponents arguing it places undue burdens on landlords and may make it impossible for them to profit, while supporters say rent control is necessary to ensure Richmond residents are able to afford housing. The California Apartment Association, a lobbying group representing landlords, is suing the city in an attempt to overturn the law.
According to the text of Measure L, the rent board is charged with enforcing the law, and will act as a kind of referee between landlords and tenants. The board will establish base rents, make adjustments in rent increases and decreases and can authorize tenants to withhold rents if a landlord doesn’t follow the proper notification procedures for rent increases or other changes.
Applications for a seat on the rent board were available online to all Richmond residents, and the rent board members selected by Butt were chosen from among those applicants. Under the Richmond city charter, the mayor has the power to appoint members to boards and committees, but the council has the power to approve or deny them.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several speakers tried to speak about the rent board during the open forum, but the mayor told them they had to wait until the item was discussed on the consent calendar, which would have been towards the end of the more than three-hour meeting. But several speakers persisted; when Richmond resident Elizabeth Castro, speaking through a translator, asked Butt for “a just rent board,” Butt interjected that she wasn’t allowed to speak on the matter yet.
Councilmember and former mayor Gayle McLaughlin motioned to allow speakers to talk about the rent board during the open forum. The motion passed with five yes votes, with councilmember Jael Myrick abstaining and Butt voting no.
Castro then continued her comment, imploring the mayor to appoint rent board members who will take the city’s low-income residents into account. “Many people that rent apartments are taking advantage of us. They’re leaving entire families, because of the raise in rents, we’re left without anything to eat,” Castro said. “This is a big problem in the city of Richmond. A lot of landlords are not respecting the law. I’m here to just say that I don’t think this is fair. There are many families that are being affected, and this is why we need a just rent board, we need the city’s help to implement the protections of this law because many landlords are taking advantage of us.”
Several more speakers commented on the rent board, with some asserting that the mayor’s choices for the board were opponents of Measure L. One speaker compared the rent board to President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, such as Department of Energy head Rick Perry, who once pledged to abolish the department.
After about a half dozen speakers spoke about the rent board, Butt announced he was removing the item asking for approval of his nominees from the calendar and there would be no vote on the rent board that night.
“Before we call the next speaker, madam clerk, I want to say that I am going to withdraw all of my nominations for rent board tonight. So item H-12 will not be heard. There are no nominations. If people want to speak about rent control, anything about it, or the board, or appointments, they can now do so during open forum. But we will not be hearing H-12 tonight,” he said.
Speaking after the meeting, City Councilmember and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles said she believes public comments on the rent board, which ran over an hour, contributed to Butt’s decision to remove the item from the agenda.
“I think he removed it as a result of the public, I would say, pressure. He may deny that,” Beckles said. “But what the public was requesting and is insisting upon is that the mayor appoint people, a majority of people who support the ordinance. Not people who could possibly dismantle it. And that’s the concern that was expressed tonight.”
In an interview with Richmond Confidential after the meeting, Butt blamed McLaughlin for his decision to pull the item from the calendar. “The former mayor Gayle McLaughlin decided to flex her muscles and pull a power play and get a vote of the city council to overturn the chair’s prerogative,” Butt said, referring to his own prerogative to prevent people from speaking about the rent board before the item came up. “And you know these games are just not going to work. Only one person can appoint people to the rent board. That’s me.”
For her part, McLaughlin said she has made every effort to work with Butt on the rent board. “I look forward to finding common ground on this rent board issue with the mayor very, very much. And I expressed that to him at the meeting and by email afterward, that I really want to work with him on this issue,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s very, very important that we come up with this rent board, and I realize that he was upset. But people get upset and then they get over it, and I hope that’s the case with him.”
McLaughlin said she motioned to allow speakers during the open forum because she knew many people who wanted to comment on the rent board couldn’t stay until the end of the meeting.
“People feel very strongly about this. And as you may have heard at the meeting, they really needed and wanted to put forward their general position on the rent board during open forum,” she said. “I understood that they could not wait until the end of the meeting, and that’s totally within our rules to be able to speak generally on a subject during open forum.”
Proposed board member Scott Anderson said he was informed just last week that he had been selected to be on the rent board. Speaking with Richmond Confidential at Tuesday night’s meeting, when he had expected his appointment to be made official, Anderson said he is now unsure whether he will still be asked to serve on it.
“Since they postponed it, I think now the mayor can change it, and so now I don’t even know if I’m going to continue being a nominee for that,” he said. “They said we could contact the councilmembers. And I guess maybe my next step is to reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, you know, hopefully I remain a nominee.’”
“I’m just going to remain hopeful from here out,” he added.
Anderson, who holds a degree in economics from San Jose State University, said he applied to serve on the rent board because he grew up in Richmond and is seeking a way to contribute to the city. As a rent board member, Anderson said he would seek to strike a balance between the needs of tenants and landlords.
“We’re going to need a rent board that actually understands both sides, understands that we do need relief that the rent control offers. We definitely need that for some people. But we also don’t want to push landlords away with some of the language and some of the stuff that’s in it too,” he said. “I just feel like the way that some council members and organizations go about it, they go about it by demonizing landlords. And I know for a fact that not all landlords are greedy landlords.”
In addition to Anderson, one other proposed member of the rent board spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. During the open forum for public comment, nominee Lauren Maddock outlined her background for the councilmembers and asked them to consider approving her for the board if her name remains on the list of nominees.
“I’ve worked as property management, asset management, as a developer. I understand what it takes for low-income families to reside in the Bay Area, trying to secure safe, affordable and decent housing,” Maddock said. “I also have 16 years interpreting regulation, specifically housing code. So I feel that I would have been a qualified candidate, so I invite you to take a look at my resume and I hope that this item is continued in the future. Thank you.”
Following the meeting, Butt said the city council has to strike a compromise with him over the board or the city simply will not get one.
“Unless somebody recalls me, I’m going to be the mayor until January of 2019. And if they keep playing these games, we will not have a rent board at least until January of 2019,” he said.
Butt said he has not decided yet if he will try again to make appointments to the board at the next city council meeting. He’s waiting to hear from councilmembers if they will approve his chosen nominees.
“I’ve been trying to work with them now for almost five months, and we’re just not getting anywhere,” Butt said.
The next city council meeting is on March 21. The agenda, with or without a rent board, will be published on Thursday, March 16.