Rent Control Measure Would Give Landlord-Tenant Commission Unprecedented Power

By Amanda Biers-Melcher

Last year, a friend of mine had her rent go up almost three hundred dollars a month. Her paycheck — not surprisingly — stayed the same. Each month was a scramble to cut costs and pick up some extra side jobs here and there. It was stressful. It was terrible.

And her story is not unusual. According to a 2019 study, rents in LA County have increased by 65 percent over the last decade and wages have not kept up.

It’s no wonder cries for housing justice — and complaints that “the rent is just too damn high” — have gotten louder in recent years. 

In January, as part of an effort to address these concerns, the state implemented a controversial rent control measure as part of a larger housing bill. The new law, which is set to expire in ten years, seeks to control price increases and regulate evictions for mostly older rental properties statewide (see my earlier post detailing how it works And, in November, Burbank voters will face a ballot measure which aims to put even tighter controls on rental properties in our city (see link above).

It might be tempting to vote “yes” on this ballot measure. Especially if you like the idea of rent control. Especially if you believe in housing justice. Especially if you are sick and tired of your elected officials not doing nearly enough to address the growing housing crisis in our city.

But, you shouldn’t. Really.

Because no matter how you feel about the overarching policy — even if you believe some sort of rent regulation is necessary to keep families in their homes— even if you are desperate for a solution — any solution —to our housing crisis— the Burbank Rent Stabilization and Tenant Protection Act is, in my opinion, flawed. Further, I believe it is being championed by those whose personal interests and political ambitions could potentially be served by its passage at the expense of Burbank taxpayers (whether they realize it or not) — and I will explain why.

But first, let’s look at what, in my view, is one of the most concerning aspects of the proposed ordinance: its creation of an independent Landlord-Tenant Commission with extraordinary powers.

The commission’s members would be appointed by the City Council — not elected — and would operate without oversight from it, the City Council or the City Attorney.

It would be empowered to create its own budget, hire and fire staff, assess taxes on landlords (at whatever amount they decide), hire attorneys for and subpoena witnesses in judicial hearings and even, in some cases, recommend to local law enforcement that landlords face criminal charges.

The ordinance the ballot measure would put in place also says the city must foot the bill not only for the initial set-up costs (which the commission can pay back, or not; it’s up to them). It also says that the city is obligated to cover any annual budget shortfalls in perpetuity. 

It’s important to note that, in such a scenario, the city would have to pay the entire amount the Landlord-Tenant Commission demanded (with no initial oversight over the budget). This figure would not be negotiable. And the city would have to do this before allocating resources to any other programs which lack such a legal mandate — effectively prioritizing this commission over other city-funded projects like public safety, parks and recreation, infrastructure, etc.

Let me say that again: these commissioners would not be elected officials and therefore would not answer directly to voters (although the Council could vote to remove them) yet they would be empowered to unilaterally carve as much taxpayer money out of the city budget as they wanted, to fund their activities. To fund the salaries they would set (including their own). To fund any costs they deemed “reasonable” or “necessary.”

Now, you might ask —  will this really be a problem? Isn’t the tax on landlords supposed to make the Commission self-supporting? 

In theory, yes. In practice, no. 

In fact, in Mountain View, CA a rent control measure nearly identical to the one proposed to Burbank (and quite possibly crafted by the same legal team) was passed by voters about three years ago;  last year its Rent Board demanded the city make up a roughly two hundred thousand dollar deficit.  

It seems that, in Mountain View, the Rent Board’s efforts at getting landlords to pay the annual tax — which was supposed to pay for its operation — were lackluster at best. And, with the city on the hook to fill in the budget gap, the commissioners had little impetus to fix the problem.

Another troubling feature of the measure on November’s ballot is the provision that ties the hands of the City Council should it attempt to make changes to the ordinance once it becomes Burbank law. 

Despite City Council candidate Konstantine Anthony’s assertions on social media, that electing him to that body would allow him to work with the council to “tweak” and “refine” the law, the language of the ordinance itself is clear. The city would only be empowered “to enact complementary or non-conflicting ordinances” or take actions “designed to comply with or further the terms and purposes of this Chapter.”  They could not, for example, limit the powers of the Landlord Tenant Commission.

So why create a body like this reimagined Landlord-Tenant Commission and allow it to operate unchecked outside the laws that normally govern city agencies?  Why is that baked into this ballot measure? One might argue that the purpose is to limit political interference in the commission’s activities and to provide the independence necessary for it to carry out its duties effectively.  

But that seems to me to be a rather Pollyannaish view and quite detached from any understanding of how a body like the one the ordinance would impose might function in real life.  As any student of city politics knows, creating a powerful quasi-governmental body that falls outside the purview of city government — and which can operate under a completely different set of rules as it makes decisions which impact the economic livelihoods of those subject to its authority — usually has another consequence.  It invites abuse of power and even corruption. 

It’s certainly easy to see how an ambitious politician might take advantage of the opportunity to serve on this commission not only because it affords the rare chance to write one’s own paycheck, but also because it would allow him to amass a significant powerbase. 

By hiring the “right” people, making the “right” decisions in disputes brought before it and striking deals with those in the best position to lend a helping hand later on, he or she could easily use the commission as a stepping stone to higher office. That the commission would have license to publish materials and host events — which would serve to keep that ambitious politician in the public eye — would also not, in my mind, be a small consideration. 

And, while I have no idea whether those promoting this ballot measure are well-intentioned and simply unaware of how easily a position on this commission could be exploited, I don’t think we, as voters, have the luxury of being willfully ignorant. Instead we must be vigilant and consider all the potential negative consequences of a “yes” vote — especially because the ordinance would be so difficult to unravel were it to be implemented.

To that end, I encourage you to read the proposed ordinance for yourself, here.

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