A petition to repeal rent control in Richmond is being circulated throughout the city but its backers have yet identify themselves and no one seems to know who is behind the effort.
The City Council formally adopted a rent control and just cause for eviction policy on Aug. 5. Richmond City Clerk Pamela Christian said the petitioners have until Sept. 4 to file the referendum petition but nothing has been filed with the city to date.
Several people have pointed to the California Apartment Association as a likely sponsor. The organization sent emissaries to several Richmond City Council meetings to voice its opposition to the plan.
Reached by phone, Theresa Karr, executive director of the association's Contra Costa office in Pleasant Hill, refused to say whether the association was funding the petition or whether the organization supported the repeal of rent control.
Karr deferred to the organization's spokesman, Mike Nemeth, who has not returned requests for comment.
Asked whether the Apartment Owners Association of California Inc., which also sent representatives to oppose Richmond's proposal, was sponsoring the petition, president Daniel Faller said they were not, although he did say they would support the petition.
Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and staunch support of rent control, said she has asked the signature gatherers, who have been seen outside of several grocery stores in the area, to name their employers but has not gotten a response.
"It seems to me that they would know who they're working for and they are not willing to say," Beckles said. "That's a really big red flag."
Even if the outfit behind the petition is unclear, Beckles said their motive is anything but.
"What's behind it is greed," she said. "I've said it once and I won't mince my words. Greed is behind it, greed is driving it."
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who was vocal in his opposition to the policy, said he also didn't know who was behind the petition but he wasn't surprised to see one circulating.
"I've said in writing more than once that I believe the ordinance is deeply flawed the way it is currently drafted and it has a lot of other problems," Butt said. "I don't think rent control has been successful in other places, so I'm not surprised it's being challenged."
Meanwhile, a counter effort has emerged to encourage residents not to sign the petition. David Sharples, director of the Contra Costa County chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said his group is actively fighting the petition by distributing flyers urging residents not to sign it.
Christian, the city clerk, said the petitioners would need to gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters, or approximately 4,198, to suspend the ordinance. The referendum would then go to a vote in the city's next general election in November 2016, she said.
To secure a special election before the general election, Christian said the petitioners would need to gather signatures from 15 percent of registered voters, or 6,297 signatures.
If taken to the general public, both Beckles and Butt said it would be a close call to either maintain or repeal rent control in the city.
"It wouldn't be a slam dunk," Butt said of the effort to repeal rent control. "It would be a very close election. I think it could go either way."
Sharples and Faller, who stand on opposite sides of the rent control debate, both said it was more likely that Richmond voters would support rent control.
"You'd have to give the renters an awful lot of credit to vote against it," Faller said. "They'd have to have a good education in economics before they'd vote against (rent control)."
"I don't think Richmond voters want to see unfair eviction notices and excessive rent increases," Sharples said. "I think the kind of common sense proposal that the City Council passed will stand up because it helps protect our community."
The policy allows for the establishment of an elected Rent Control Board and annual rent increases of 100 percent of the Consumer Price Index.
Property owners are expected to pay an annual fee to fund the program, although that fee has yet to be determined by the city. Under the ordinance, up to 40 percent of that fee can be passed on to tenants and landlords can also apply for a hardship waiver if they can't pay the fee.
The ordinance becomes effective Sept. 4, unless the challenge is successful.