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Rent Review Advisory Committee, or rent control? Voters in Alameda will decide

When Ralph Medina’s family first moved into their two-bedroom apartment, the rent was around $2,000. Today, he’s pleading with the Alameda Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC) to slow down the constant increases.

“Over the past three years it’s been ten percent, and then twelve percent, and now another 4.9 percent,” says Medina. “You add all that up, it’s about a 30 percent increase over the last three years.”

Not surprisingly, Medina says, his salary as an insurance claims manager has not grown at the same rate.

Medina’s home is one of several at the South Shore Beach and Tennis Club Apartments, where a one-year lease was offered with an annual rent increase of just under five percent.

Darren Carrington, who represents the owner, San Mateo-based Prometheus real estate group, explains why they feel justified in raising Medina’s rent.

“Based on what all the other landowners are charging for similar product in Alameda, we’re still $400 below market, and that’s something that we pride ourselves on,” says Carrington.

Medina asks the company to give him one month’s free rent with a one-year contract -- an offer he just saw advertised for a different apartment in the same complex. The Prometheus agents decline; they say he could move into a less “premium” unit for lower rent. But Medina says he has no desire to move to a different unit.

Since the two parties can’t agree, the RRAC takes over to find a compromise. The committee consists of two landlords, two tenants, and one homeowner with no rental property. In this case, one RRAC member proposes a smaller rent increase. Then Chair Brendan Sullivan-Sariñana offers what he thinks is at the heart of the matter.

“I’m not suggesting that landlords shouldn’t get a good return,” Sullivan-Sariñana says. “I think the burden upon a tenant to pay such a high rent increase gets to the meat of what our role is about.”

With rents rising continually around the Bay Area, renters might feel they have no choice but to accept whatever price the landlord wants to charge -- or move out, often to another town.

Last year, the Alameda city council decided to take action to keep residents in their homes, and put a temporary moratorium on rent increases. After that expired, the Council passed an ordinance that expanded the role of the RRAC, which mediates whenever a tenant wants to contest a rent increase.

The new rules require automatic reviews of all increases over five percent. Alameda’s Community Development Director Debbie Potter says this stemmed from a rash of evictions.

“People were renters; they paid their rent every month, they were good tenants, and they were getting termination notices,” Potter says. “Really, it was to take advantage of the market and increase rents.”

Potter says the new rules were designed to protect Alamedans from losing their homes --  while still allowing landowners enough income to maintain the property and their profits.  

The City Council “wanted to design a program that had a big role for mediation and what sometimes we call kind of a ‘hybrid,’” Potter says. “A little more teeth than strictly mediation, but not rent control because, you know, each case might be different.”

Is the process working? Well, in Ralph Medina’s case, the RRAC members talked about options and then voted for a 3.6 percent increase, which is lower than the landlord’s 4.9 percent.  But their decision is merely advisory. Prometheus doesn’t have to comply. A RRAC decision is only binding when the proposed rent increase exceeds five percent.

After the hearing, Medina said that nothing new came out of the overly long mediation. His landlords still wouldn’t budge.

“In years past I’ve talked with them about previous rent increases, and I’ve gotten similar responses: ‘Hey, we don’t set the prices here; it’s all done at corporate,’ and they don’t have any room to negotiate them,” Medina says.

Prometheus' agents declined to comment that day, and didn’t return our phone calls or emails.

Despite the disagreement between landlord and tenant, the hearing was civil. And rent review boards like this one are growing in popularity around the Bay Area. San Leandro’s Rent Review Board meets monthly, and Albany is considering starting one.

But an RRAC hearing is still a place of conflict, says tenant advocate Eric Strimling. He believes it’s hard -- and risky -- for a tenant to stand up to a landlord in public.

“In fact what you’re asking is for a tenant to go to the person who owns their home -- and the person who can throw them out of their home for no cause,” Strimling says. “They just give them a 60-day notice and they’re gone, that’s who you’re negotiating with, and if you lose the negotiation, then you pay what the landlord asks.”

Because there’s still no strict limit on rent increases or evictions, the Alameda Renters Coalition (ARC), collected enough signatures to put rent control on November’s ballot. Strimling, who volunteers with ARC, says Alameda Measure M1 would only allow rent increases of up to 65 percent of the consumer price index.

“The intent is to protect the landlord’s rate of return,” he explains. “The rate of return should stay the same as when they first moved the tenant in. The landlord agreed that that was a fair rate of return at the time of renting.”

Strimling believes that taking the guesswork out of how much rent can go up improves the landlord-tenant relationship, the way that “good fences make good neighbors.”

“If you create a solid cap on the rent increase, there’s not a negotiation, there’s not a give-and-take, there’s not a ‘you said-they said,’ it’s just, ‘This is the number,’ and that’s that,” says Strimling. “That takes all that adversarial relationship out of it.”

Strimling says he’s talked with a few Alameda landlords who support the measure. But it’s clear from the number of political signs around Alameda that many don’t like the idea of rent control.

At Marilyn Schumacher’s 1898 Victorian, the sun sparkles through long, elegant windows, but wet patches mar her living room ceiling.

“Takes artists to do some of this stuff, you know? To make the ceiling back this way,” she says.

Schumacher rents out four units upstairs, and she says they all need continual work.  

“I’ve replaced two refrigerators in two apartments in the last week-and-a-half,” Schumacher says. “One of the bathrooms in one of the apartments has rained in my living room.”

Schumacher says things break down without warning, and rent money doesn’t always cover the repairs every year.

In addition, the limited rent increase allowed in Measure M1 is especially meagre when it comes to maintaining smaller, older buildings like hers.

“It’s not sufficient for people to live in habitable places,” she says.

Schumacher says the current RRAC process seems to be working, though not all landowners are well-informed yet about their duties, and some landlords hide behind their corporate name. She hasn’t appeared before the RRAC, but when her colleagues have, “for the most part, everything worked itself out,” Schumacher says. “I like it because, step aside, see what you can come up with.”

RRAC Chair Brendan Sullivan-Sariñana understands that RRAC decisions can’t please everyone.

“A landlord and ownership group complained to the mayor, and also a tenants’ group did,” Sullivan-Sariñana says. “But I almost take heart in that, because I’m a tenant, and if a tenant says I’m unfair, but then also a landlord says I’m being unfair, it makes me feel like maybe I’m doing my job well as a mediator.”

The Alameda City Council has placed its own measure on the November ballot. Measure L1 is essentially aimed at preserving the status quo: no rent control, with the RRAC continuing to mediate landlord-tenant disputes. If both L1, the city ordinance, and M1, the rent control measure, pass, then only the higher vote-getter of the two will go into effect.

Rent control will also be put before voters in Oakland, Richmond, Burlingame, San Mateo and Mountain View.