Concord City Council Strikes Blow to Rent Control Advocates, Rejects Moratorium

"It’s not the same Concord we were in even 10 years ago."

After hearing several hours of emotional pleas from tenants on the brink of losing their homes, Concord’s City Council on Tuesday voted down a proposed moratorium banning rent hikes above 3 percent and no-cause evictions.

The urgency ordinance required a supermajority of four votes, but it could only muster two. Council member Dan Helix and Edi Birsan supported the motion, while Mayor Laura Hoffmeister and council members Tim Grayson and Ron Leone voted it down, arguing that a 45-day moratorium would do little to ease the burdens facing the community. 

Grayson — who will soon leave the city council after winning a seat in the state assembly — noted that it was a difficult decision and conceded that Concord’s rental market is changing.

“There is no doubt, no question that Concord is experiencing growing pains. It’s not the same Concord we were in even 10 years ago…” Grayson said. “It’s not easy.” He added that the council was “being asked to intrude on a private industry” in such a way that would have negative repercussions for small landlords who are not raising rents dramatically.

Rent control has been a hot topic across the Bay Area, a region struggling with gentrification now spreading into its lower-income cities. Richmond’s city council failed to pass a similar moratorium, but voters approved rent control during the November election, as did Oakland, Mountain View and Berkeley. Burlingame and San Mateo, meanwhile, rejected forms of rent control policies. Economists and housing specialists remain divided on whether rent control is ultimately an effective method to combat displacement.  

Mayor Laura Hoffmeister said the data for the city of Concord didn’t support a need for an emergency ordinance. 

“I can’t, in my heart, find the urgency citywide,” she said.

In Concord, renters have a median household income of about $45,400. Data from a city staff report shows that the average monthly rent in 2016 hovered round $1,700 in 2016, a 34.6 percent increase since 2012. 

Although the overall tenor of the six-hour meeting was somber, with many tearful pleas from residents, deliberations were punctuated with brief moments of levity from both Helix and Birsan.

“I feel like a pregnant elephant that’s in labor, and I’m going to deliver a mouse,” he said, referring to the nine-plus months the council has been hearing about the need for rent control and the subsequent lack of results. 

Helix, who will be retiring from the city council after working for the city on-and-off since 1968, had issues with the lack of detail in a staff report on the city’s housing situation. 

“Data is like a women’s bathing suit,” he said, quoting a UC Berkeley professor he knew. “What it shows is suggestive, but what it conceals is crucial.” 

It was also Helix who arguably expressed the most sympathy for the residents during the meeting. He said the city needs more affordable housing. 

“I know we have people who have to rent, “ he said. “But being a renter is no fun. It’s a nervous way to live. To me, it’s the antithesis of the American dream…I didn’t really think a moratorium was such a big deal. I thought we could have one for the holiday season. It’s a small ray of hope for a lot of people.” 

Many of the tenants who addressed the council wore Santa hats, in an attempt to remind the council that those being evicted would likely be scrambling for housing during the holiday season.

Through a translator and tears, Yolanda Negrete told the council that she cares for her sick husband and that 80 percent of the money they make goes toward rent. She said she fears her family, which includes small children, will be forced out onto the streets if her rent rises. If she is evicted, she won’t be able to come up with the costs of moving to a new place, including a security deposit and other associated expenses, she said. 

“After paying rent, we don’t have enough left to cover food….” She said, through the translator. “…Where will we go?” 

Landlords also spoke to the council, often arguing that rent control policies would prevent them from updating and renovating buildings. 

“Rent control restricts the maintenance of the buildings,” said John Desouza, a Concord landlord. “When rents are low, there’s no money to be made. It’s a simple fact.”

According to tenant advocacy groups, demonstrations supporting rent control will continue throughout the month despite the moratorium failing. They say they are not giving up. 

“This movement’s not going away,” said Kristi Laughlin, a campaign director for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. “This is going to be an ongoing problem, so people will continue to be active in asking council to step in, or we’ll have to take it to the people.”

Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCuni.com or give her a call at (669) 263-2895. 

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