When we last checked in on the city’s new Rent Stabilization Commission in March we found the wheels were coming off. Relations between tenant and landlord representatives had grown acrimonious. Issue discussions were contentious. Misunderstandings about tenancy law abounded. Then suddenly two tenant representatives quit out of frustration. Now the commission has run off the road and into a ditch. What will it take to make it roadworthy again?
The fact is that this commission was not built for speed in the first place. Nearly all commissioners were first-timers and they received barely a few hours of instruction about commission process, procedures and ethics (“Don’t accept bribes,” said the city attorney). But that training dwarfed the mere minutes spent on introducing the new commissioners to state and local tenancy law. Then this commission was sent on its way without a roadmap.
No wonder this commission skidded into partisanship and then ultimately veered off the road. (This year four out of five scheduled meetings have been cancelled.) But the funny thing is that nobody really noticed. Few among the public tune-in to the commission’s virtual meetings and even fewer ever phoned-in a comment. Most meetings went without any public comment whatsoever except for Renters Alliance.
Even though the commission effectively went on hiatus after the February meeting, only a short piece in the Weekly remarked on it.
The commission has gone on hiatus but no email from the rent stabilization division announced it. There was no news blurb on the rent stabilization website describing the situation. The tenant members who resigned in April were still shown as current members five weeks later.
We felt it was time to bring the commission’s smash-up to the attention of city council. So at the May 13th council meeting Mark Elliot from Renters Alliance summarized the situation during public comment.
Mayor Bob Wunderlich followed up. “Do we have a commission liaison meeting scheduled that’s going to be talking about how the Rent Stabilization Commission will be working, going forward?” Assistant City Manager Nancy Hunt Coffee replied, “The plan is to move forward with recruiting for those two positions that are vacated so we are getting that process going.” (The mayor then asked about additional issues to discuss but city staff tamped-down the need to discuss anything else.)
It seems that city staff prefer to simply fill the two vacant tenant representative seats and get this commission back on the road rather than address the issues that kept this commission from working constructively in the first place. That is the wrong call. Should the city simply stand-up this commission again without fixing the problems we know the outcome already because we have seen this show before. Past episodes are available to stream on the commission archived video webpage.
What’s the Fix?
The mayor’s idea is the right one: send it to the commission liaison committee so that the commission chair and vice-chair and sit down with two appointed councilmembers (Lili Bosse and Lester Friedman) to identify what this commission needs if it is to effectively discharge its responsibilities. Were are approaching a year since the commissioners were appointed and we know of no instance where a commissioner was asked how to improve it.
We can suggest a few fixes:
- Educate commissioners. Rent stabilization is a complex policy and tenancy law touches on both state statute and local ordinance but our commissioners have received only a few minutes of education on the topic. RSO director Helen Morales admittedly hurried through her presentation of that material. And that left commissioners unprepared for discussing the fine points of tenancy law.
- Provide better staff support to the commission during the meeting. City staff have tended to take a backseat while commissioners tried to navigate unfamiliar terrain. Discussions sometimes veered off topic and into irrelevance. Commissioners brought into the discussion some misunderstandings of tenancy law. This new commission needs an informed hand at the wheel if it is to negotiate complex legal issues.
- Build trust. Tensions do inevitably arise among commissioners especially on a contentious issue like rent stabilization. Without a history of having worked together there is little trust upon which commissioners can draw when the road gets bumpy. That challenge was illustrated by the very first rent stabilization policy issue the commission discussed. It was an easy one but it went off the rails.
It is the city’s responsibility to fix this commission. City council had proposed to hand the hot potato of rent stabilization to a Rent Stabilization Commission back in 2018 before there even was such a commission. The city created it and then council appointed six commissioners (plus three alternates) to it. But the city didn’t make sure this commission was ready for the road before turning it loose.
That is why it would be wrong to only appoint two replacement tenant commissioners and then send the commission on its way again. We’ve seen that movie and it doesn’t end well!