Palo Alto's heated debate over renter protection turned bitter and personal on Monday night, as City Council members exchanged insults and accusations before reaching a compromise that left most feeling dissatisfied.
At the end of the long discussion, the divided council voted to support a memo that advocates a series of modest and relatively non-controversial policies to aid renters. These include better enforcement of a city ordinance requiring one-year leases and more support around rent stabilization. And for the second time in the past year, the council rejected the idea of exploring a policy that would cap rent increases. Championed by council members Tom DuBois, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou, the proposal to evaluate such a policy ended in a deadlock, with only Vice Mayor Eric Filseth joining them.
Council members Adrian Fine, Greg Scharff, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach all voted against DuBois' amendment to expand the range of renter-protection policies that will be studied, effectively killing it (Mayor Liz Kniss recused herself because her family has financial interest in a rental property). In doing so, they ensured that the city's exploration of rental protection would be largely limited to the measures outlined in a memo co-signed by DuBois, Holman, Kou and Wolbach.
While the council ultimately voted 7-1, with Tanaka dissenting, to support the approach in the memo, the discussion was marked by bitter divisions. DuBois, who favors capping rent increases, proposed a similar memo with Holman and Kou a year ago, though it failed to win their colleagues' support. The new memo excluded some of the most controversial policies in the former one -- most notably, rent stabilization and a requirement for "just cause" evictions -- and added on co-signatory: Wolbach, who usually votes with the council's more growth-friendly faction.
The compromise quickly collapsed, however, when DuBois proposed an amendment directing the council to discuss a "full range of renter protections," including rent stabilization and just cause evictions.
This change irked Fine and Wolbach, each of whom called DuBois' amendment a "poison pill." Fine said he believes the council has been "misled" by the three council members who favor rent stabilization. Wolbach said he was "really disappointed" with his co-authors, who he suggested went back on the compromise they reached in the summer memo.
"The problem with trying to find compromise is you might have kumbaya or you might end up dying in no-man's land," Wolbach said.
Fine likewise saw the addition of rent-stabilization as a deal-breaker, though he also suggested that the memo, in other ways, doesn't go far enough. The memo, he said doesn't introduce any concrete ideas. He criticized its authors for a lack of effort.
"This memo comes across to me as window dressing," Fine said. "I think we need to be professional and separate the emotionalism of this issue, especially with President Hotel, from actual policies and regulations that would serve the current and future residents here."
While Scharff, Fine and Wolbach called DuBois' amendment a "radical" change and withdrew their support, Holman and Kou joined DuBois and argued that the situation has grown more urgent since the memo was first considered, as evidenced by the crowds of speakers who have been turning up at recent meetings to protest the planned conversion of President Hotel from an apartment building. Residents are facing a Nov. 12 deadline for eviction.
"A lot has happened. Notwithstanding the President Hotel. Climate has changed, the culture has changed, the circumstances have changed, and that's why we need to be even more inclusive of what the discussion is," Holman said, adding that the discussion is even more appropriate now than it was a year ago.
Holman said not having the discussion will display a "lack of leadership."
"We are behind other communities; we are lagging other communities." Holman said. "We have people who are leaving the city because they can't afford it."
The discussion became particularly testy after Holman called existing tenants such as those in attendance "some of the most valuable tenants and residents we'll ever have."
"Because they've been invested in this community by way of their residency, by way of their occupations, by way of their volunteerism," Holman said.
Fine and Scharff chafed at this comment, with Scharff likening Holman's implied support of existing residents over future ones to the federal restrictions on immigration.
"This reminds me of our immigration debate," Scharff said. "I doubt any of you would stand up and say publicly, 'We don't want immigrants coming to our city.'"
Holman said she found this comparison "exceedingly, exceedingly insulting."
Scharff also criticized Holman, Kou and DuBois for reviving a proposal that the council killed last year and turning what should have been an easy-to-accept memo into a controversial proposal. Kou countered that she would prefer a "full discussion" that would lead to a "meaningful ordinance" for the residents in town. The vote on this issue, she said, clearly "shows one's principles and convictions" when it comes to protecting tenants.
The council also heard from about two dozen speakers, representing all sides of the issue. President Hotel tenants and housing advocates urged the council to do more to support the 44 percent of the city's residents who rent. Katja Priess, a President Hotel tenant, said that after negotiating Palo Alto's rental market for 23 years, she now for the first time feels like she has "hit a wall," with no feasible places for her to move.
"It is an emergency situation, not just for us ... but all of Palo Alto," Priess said.
Former Mayor Pat Burt noted that San Jose and Mountain View already have renter protections in place. They are also, he noted, the regional leaders in construction of new rental housing.
But landlords and their representatives argued that such measures, while well-meaning, would do more harm than good. Rhovy Lyn Antonio, who represented the California Apartment Association, urged the council to formulate strategies that would not harm housing providers.
"It's hard to protect renters in Palo Alto when you're harming people who are providing housing to them," Antonio said.
The only council member who opposed any new exploration of rent-stabilization measures was Tanaka, who argued that adopting policies that support existing tenants would necessarily lock everyone else out of the city.
"If you're just starting out and (there's) rent control, you're locked out because no one wants to give up their rent-control apartment," Tanaka said.
He also suggested that if the city were to pursue such changes, it should first commission an analysis that would consider these policies' effects in areas such as housing supply and population diversity.
"It's a radical change; we should do it the right way," Tanaka said.