San Francisco

Richmond Tenants Say Landlord Mayor Had Conflict of Interest in Crucial Rent Vote

Richmond rent control proponents are fuming following the reveal that Mayor Tom Butt, who voted against a moratorium on rent hikes and evictions earlier this month, is a current landlord.

Butt’s critics argue that the landlord gig constitutes a conflict of interest and say he should have excused himself from the Sept. 13 vote, which would have imposed a 45-day ban on some evictions and rent hikes. The emergency ordinance required a super majority of six out of seven "yes" votes to pass, but it could only muster four.

The mayor owns four properties in the city, including his home, a single-family rental house, a duplex and commercial rental units. Documents he filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission show that he is also a partner in Baltic Development Associates, a real estate company. 

"It's not right," said Sharon Brown, a Richmond native facing eviction. "If that's not a conflict, I mean, I don't know what is." 

Butt told NBC Bay Area via phone that he did not break any explicit city council rules when he voted, nor did he feel a requirement to disclose the alleged conflict of interest. He noted that the properties he rents out would be exempt from the rent control portion of moratorium (but not the clauses limiting eviction) due to their age.

According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which does not respond to individual cases, a public official should sit out any vote that would affect his or her personal finances. However, there exists the "Public Generally Exception," which allows politicians to vote on an item so long as the financial interest is indistinguishable from that of the general public. Butt said his interest fits the latter category. 

Others in the city heartily disagreed, calling into question the mayor's logic.

“I really don’t get it,” said Eric Hattrup of Richmond. “How can he be unbiased on the issue if he’s a landlord?”

Hattrup, who is being evicted from Creekside Apartments, said he has been unable to find any available units in Richmond that fit his price range. The median rents in the working-class city hover around $2,400, according toZillow, up about $700 from 2014's costs.  

Butt’s political opponents have also cried foul. Melvin Willis, who is running for city council, claimed that the vote posed a moral and ethical dilemma, even if not a legal one. 

“What concerns me about him being a landlord and voting on this moratorium is that I think he had a complete disconnection from the needs of the tenants who are being evicted unfairly,” Willis said.

Butt, who began his career as a city council member in 1995, has been a longtime opponent of rent control. He flatly denied accusations that his vote was one of self-interest, calling the moratorium “bad public policy.” 

“I really do believe that the overwhelming research shows that it doesn’t work,” Butt said. “You have to look at cities that have had rent control and some version of just-cause (evictions). These cities collectively have not only the highest rents in the Bay Area, but also in the U.S.” 

Like the argument on Butt's conflict of interest, the research on rent control's efficacy is still debated. A majority of economists seem to agree that it has a negative effect on housing costs, but a UC Berkeley study on urban displacement did find that Bay Area cities with rent control laws have greater residential stability.

"Rent Control is tricky. It can serve as a valuable anti-displacement tool because it stabilizes people's rent and it gives them the insurance and security of knowing housing costs won't go up dramatically, particularly in a rising market," said Carolina Reid, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. "The problem with rent control is that it doesn't always produce the housing equity we're hoping it will." 

Rising rents in Richmond — and solutions to combat it — continues to be one of the most politically divisive issues facing the city's electorate. On Nov. 8, a similar, yet permanent, version of the failed ordinance will appear before voters as Measure L. 

Linette Young, a Richmond tenant who must leave her apartment before Nov. 1, said she’s hoping she’ll be able to stay in the city long enough to get to vote on it for herself. 

“I don't think it's fair what Butt did. You have a whole lot of people who don’t know where they’re going,” she said. “I anticipate a lot of voter confusion, and in a small city like Richmond, how many votes does it take to shift an election in a tightly contested race?”

Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter @GillianNBC.

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