A Right to Lease for Sunnyvale

Sunnyvale is facing a housing and displacement crisis. Working people are having difficulty paying rent, and are increasingly being forced to leave our community. Yet we offer little in the way of tenant protections above those required by state law. 

This July, at the urging of Livable Sunnyvale, our City Council agendized a study issue calling for a right to lease ordinance that would require landlords to offer their tenants a six- and twelve-month lease at terms equal to or better than any month-to-month lease that they offer. This proposal does not impose controls over the amount landlords can raise rents; it only requires them to offer longer term leases at favorable terms compared to their shorter leases. This proposal is modeled after the ordinance Mountain View had prior to the passage of rent control by ballot initiative in 2016.

That’s a mouthful. So let’s talk about why this is needed, and what it would mean for our city.

One of the most alarming things I’ve heard as I’ve become more and more involved in housing activism is from working people who’ve told me that they’ve faced more than one rent increase in a year. Most landlords at the upper end of the market already offer twelve-month leases at favorable terms, since that means that they can go longer without having to fill a vacancy. After all, large corporations value stable cash flow, and every day an apartment is left empty is lost money. At the lower end of the market, however, many landlords appear to only be offering their tenants month-to-month leases. Their goal appears to be to simply extract as much rent as possible from their tenants.

Life on a month-to-month lease makes it impossible for tenants to plan their future. They’re left in limbo, never knowing when the next rent increase will come, never knowing when they’ll be forced to pick up and move. Moving and apartment hunting costs time and money that is in scarce supply. The average intrastate move costs over $1,100. Even without hiring movers, people will need to take time off and recruit help. And there is no guarantee that one will be able to find an affordable home within range of one’s job.

Moves aren’t cheap.

Frequent moves are especially damaging to children. Frequent moves during childhood are associated with increased risks of depression and anxiety and poorer academic performance. When a student switches schools during the school year, the effect can be hugely disruptive, both to the student and the classroom that they move to. A British study has shown that students who move even once midyear suffer distinctly impaired educational outcomes.  This disruption is even greater when it affects a teacher or staff member. Now, it is no longer one student whose education is at risk of disruption, but dozens.

Every time their landlord raises their rent, renters are faced with the choice of the disruption and expense of a move or accepting the rent increase. This leaves them in a distinctly weaker negotiating position with their landlords and could allow landlords to extract even greater rents than our already desperate market would allow.

A right to lease ordinance would reduce the frequency of moving expenses and help protect children from the disruption of being forced to move during the school year. It would leave renters in a better negotiating position with their landlord, and make it easier for them to plan a life for their family. Finally, it grants them some small degree of peace of mind. The rent increase might still come, but at least you’ll know when it will come and have time to prepare.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss that second clause, which requires that the offered leases be at terms equal to or better than any month to month lease offered. This is really, really important. Without this clause, landlords could simply offer the required leases at a prohibitively expensive rate, to force tenants back onto the month-to-month. The ordinance would be toothless.

The costs of this proposal are modest. Other than enforcement and education, it imposes no costs on the City of Sunnyvale. Nor does it impose an unreasonable burden on landlords. Because this proposal does not control how much landlords can increase rents, it avoids the potential economic problems associated with rent control. Nor does it impose any burdens on tenants, who would still be free to take a shorter term lease if that better suited their needs. Indeed, the ordinance would require six-month leases be offered as well as twelve-month leases.

Adopting a right to lease ordinance won’t solve the housing crisis, not by a long shot. But it will give some much-needed stability and protection to tenants and will have no substantial negative effect on landlords. Adopting this ordinance should be a no-brainer.

So what’s next? Next February, the city council will prioritize the study issues it wants city staff to work on. If the right-to-lease ordinance is going to become a reality, we need to show up and advocate for it to be ranked as highly as possible on the list of next year’s study issues. If we’re going to make this ordinance a reality, we’ll need the good people of Sunnyvale to let our Council know that this is a priority during the public hearing on study issues.

Want to get involved? Livable Sunnyvale meets the third Wednesday of every month at Toyota Sunnyvale from 6:30 to 8:30. We hope to see you there!


(Image credit: http://www.jbsa.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2001770707/)

City to Consider District Elections

On September 5, the City Council will convene a special meeting, in order to set direction regarding public outreach and to potentially put a charter amendment on the 2020 ballot to change how the City Council gets elected.

The City Council is currently composed of seven seats, selected “at large” by voters from across the city. The City Council elects council members to serve as a Mayor and a Vice Mayor. This is fairly typical for California cities. One concern is that the at-large system dilutes minority votes, leaving minority leaders at a disadvantage at the ballot box.

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A view of race and density in Sunnyvale grabbed from The Racial Dot Map

This has led to lawsuits across the state, most notably in Santa Clara, which, until this year, had a system like the one we have in Sunnyvale. In July, Santa Clara lost a court case brought by the South Asian Law Alliance and was ordered to shift to a district-based system. This November, Santa Clara voters will elect representatives from their six districts, and a mayor will be elected in a city-wide election.

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Santa Clara’s Six Districts

City staff has prepared an in-depth report, detailing the scope of the challenge that Sunnyvale faces in terms of minority representation. The city’s population is 14% Latino and 33% Asian. Our voter turnout sees 11% of voters with Spanish surnames and 21% turnout for Asian surnames. Sunnyvale’s demographics are similar to Santa Clara.

Over the years, Sunnyvale has had City Council candidates and Councilmembers that identify as a minority race or ethnicity.

  • In 2013, Magana ran for City Council and lost to Hendricks.
  • In 2011, Chang lost to Meyering; and Pan lost to Milius.
  • In 2009 and 2003, Flores lost to Moylan and Swegles, respectively.
  • In 2003, Chu won but was not reelected in 2007, when he lost to Whittum.
  • Lee won in 2003 and served a term as mayor. Lee was not challenged in 2007 and served another term.

City Staff is recommending a period of public outreach through Spring 2019. Next summer, Council should decide on a ballot measure for the 2020 general election. Assuming the charter amendment is approved by voters, districts would be set up in 2021 based on the 2020 census, with Sunnyvale’s first district elections in 2022.

Apply for Boards and Commissions by Friday!

From https://sunnyvale.ca.gov/government/boards.htm:

The City has a strong tradition of community participation, one of which is through volunteer service on a board or commission. Boards and Commissions advise City Council on specific policy issues and provide a forum and opportunity for broad community input. Applications are accepted on a continuous basis; appointments are made by City Council as needed throughout the year.

  • You must be a resident of Sunnyvale and registered voter of the City to apply for a position on a City board or commission, unless otherwise noted.
  • Members serve four-year terms, unless otherwise noted.

Current Openings

Recruitment is underway for the following upcoming commission openings:

  • Arts Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Heritage Preservation Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Housing and Human Services Commission (1 vacancy)
  • Parks and Recreation (1 vacancy)
  • Personnel Board (1 vacancy)

Application deadline is 5 p.m. on Aug. 31. Interviews are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 11. Appointments by City Council are scheduled for Sept.25.

The application and instructions are available at: https://sunnyvale.ca.gov/government/boards.htm

A Passion for Zero Waste in Sunnyvale

In May, Sunnyvale resident Tim Oey gave a TEDx Talk at Homestead High School about his passion for Zero Waste. A few take-aways for me:

  1. Sunnyvale’s web site has a page called: “How to Get Rid of Anything”
  2. You can purchase deli/meat/bulk items from local markets using your own reusable containers.
  3. Bicycling is great. (Out bicycle infrastructure could be a lot better.)
  4. I would add that e-bikes are a great innovation that can expand your range: I bought one last year, and with a baby carrier, often run over 30 miles round trip, including daycare drop-off!

Take 15 minutes to watch Tim’s presentation over on YouTube: https://youtu.be/SSKjWyAFH14

Council to Consider Minimum Wage Delay

On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in Sunnyvale is scheduled to raise from $15.00 per hour to $15.53 per hour. Per the San Jose Mercury News, Sunnyvale and Mountain View are ahead of neighboring cities in raising the minimum wage.

San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Cupertino will increase their minimum wage rates from $13.50 to $15 in January, Santa Clara from $13 to $15 in January and Milpitas to $15 by July 2019. The statewide rate will jump from $11 to $12 next year and incrementally rise to $15 by 2022. Campbell, Los Gatos, Gilroy, Saratoga and Morgan Hill are following the state’s lead.

In July, City Council voted to consider delaying the scheduled increase to the city’s minimum wage in order to achieve a more consistent minimum wage level with neighboring cities. There is a fear is that businesses may move to cities like Palo Alto or Santa Clara in order to reduce wages.

A vote on the issue has not yet been annuonced, but is expected in September.

Per the San Jose Mercury News:

Although Vice Mayor Larry Klein and council members Gustav Larsson and Nancy Smith expressed support for delaying the next increase for a year, councilmen Russ Melton and Michael Goldman didn’t.

Melton worried about the “pocketbook impact” that delaying the increase would have on the city’s minimum wage earners. He said that for a couple who works full-time, 53 cents an hour can make a difference of roughly $2,200 a year. “On average, that’s a monthly rent in Sunnyvale. I actually think the public interest would be served by having other cities keep apace with Sunnyvale. I would argue that they accelerate instead of Sunnyvale decelerating.”

Russ Melton has a call to action on his Facebook page.

Sunnyvale Attracts the Nation’s Highest Proportion of Millenial Residents

Per the Daily Mail:

Sunnyvale, California had the highest influx (76.6 percent) of Millennials in the country in 2016 – which makes sense given the big tech employers like Google, Apple, and LinkedIn located in that area.

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This map illustrates which cities had the most success attracting international Millennial talent in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available (porch.com)

 

How to Cover Urban Planning: A Guide for Local Journalists

By Nolan Gray, republished from Strong Towns

So, you’ve been assigned to write a story about urban planning. Maybe there’s a rezoning underway that would allow for more apartments in a downtown neighborhood. Or perhaps there’s a proposal to expand an already-six-lanes-wide suburban stroad. Or let’s say the city is moving to add a protected bike lane to a busy downtown street.

At this point, you’ll typically encounter three variables: First, there will be a group of people who are extremely pissed off about the proposed change and very vocal about their concerns. Second, you’ll find that, for all the surface-level local focus, the outcome of this planning initiative could have important impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. Third and finally, you will discover that a vast and complicated web of regulations, agencies, and ulterior motives are at play, which you are now expected to learn and distill down to 600 words.

All of this is to say, you have a lot on your plate! Which might explain why journalists at all levels so frequently get the reporting wrong on urban planning issues. For those of us who follow these issues with a passion, a lot of local coverage of urban planning can be a painful experience, littered, as it tends to be, with victim blaming, myopia, and uncritical restatements of special interest talking points.

To address this, I have a compiled a list of 11 friendly suggestions for local journalists covering these issues. I hope this set of guidelines will improve your reporting and leave your readers better informed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not a journalist, consider sharing it with a local reporter.

1. Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline unless you (or your editors) value clicks over quality reporting. Remember to mention supporters of the initiative and not just the developer or contractor who serves to benefit. Depending on the issue, seek out your local housing affordability or mobility activist groups and ask for their opinion.

2. The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not “the community.” Not everyone has the time or resources to show up for a three hour weekday evening meeting to share their mild approval of a proposed road diet. But that doesn’t mean that their voices should be ignored. As with the last suggestion, make an effort to reach out and hear the other side of the story.

3. Put the issue in the appropriate broader context. Speaking of “the other side of the story,” don’t get swept up by parochial concerns. If you only listen to the angry locals at the community meeting, the rezoning you are covering might sound like the end of the world. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you may find that proposal ties into broader citywide issues. Small planning decisions have big impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. When it comes to things like housing affordability, that “bigger picture” might even be national. Clue your readers into the full story.

4. If you are covering a rezoning, explicitly name and describe the current and proposed zoning. It’s actually a bit remarkable how many articles I read about rezoning that don’t once mention the zoning districts at play or the details of how they’ll regulate development. Sometimes an article lists a proposed change without actually explaining the current laws. You wouldn’t report on an election and not say the names of the candidates or whose seat they’re running for; why leave out such basic details in urban planning coverage?

5. Always link to the relevant public reports, studies, hearing recordings, etc. Most of the reports and studies you are citing will be publicly available online as PDFs, and many cities now have their public hearings recorded and posted online. This simple addition adds depth for the more engaged readers, without boring casual readers.

6. Confused? Ask the city planner assigned to the case. Their job is literally to explain this stuff to elected officials and the public, and they will almost always have a comprehensive knowledge of the situation. Plus, if they are professional, they won’t editorialize, unlike most of the other people, you will be interviewing.

7. Things that strike you as crazy might actually have solid evidence-based support among experts and professionals. For example, let’s say your city is considering pricing on-street parking or removing a lane of traffic. Everyone in the room might be up in arms about how this will make parking and driving harder, but both of these initiatives have rock-solid researched evidence to support them and to explain their benefits to your community. That doesn’t mean these sorts of decisions should be an open-and-shut case, but leaving out such details impoverishes your reader’s perspective.

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Typical pedestrian-blaming in a headline (Source: CT Post)

8. Blaming the person hit by the car is bad form. Sadly, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are an all-too-common story that you may be forced to cover at some point. Don’t overemphasize some tiny “error” on the part of the pedestrian/bicyclists (for example, “she wasn’t wearing a helmet,” “he had had a few drinks,” “she didn’t walk a mile down to the crosswalk,” etc.) especially if the driver was known to be speeding and/or distracted. Don’t implicitly (and inappropriately) assign blame simply by the way you structure sentences (for example, say “the bicyclist and the semi-truck collided,” not “the bicyclist collided with the semi-truck”). Police reports may, at times, engage in this kind of lazy victim blaming, but know that you don’t need to overemphasize it, as stories of this nature frequently do.

9. It’s “traffic crashes,” not “traffic accidents.” “Accident” assumes that there was nothing that could be done about the incident. This is rarely the case, and I’m not just talking about careless drivers here. In many cases, grossly negligent street design makes traffic crashes practically inevitable.

10. Not everyone drives. Keep their perspectives in mind. If you are a driver, it can be easy to assume that everyone drives. But if you are reporting in a mid-size city or larger, or a college town, chances are good that anywhere from one in 10 to one in four of your readers commute via by transit, walking, or bicycle. Furthermore, every city has plenty of residents who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, disabled, can’t afford a car, etc. Some of your readers may be reading your article about a proposed dedicated bus lane as they sit on a bus stuck in traffic. Don’t leave out that perspective.

11. Try to conclude with how an interested reader can get involved. When you first report on a local planning issue, the fight is almost certainly far from over. Share the dates, times and locations for upcoming hearings. Perhaps even let your readers know who in government they might contact about this issue. Local journalism matters, in part, because it strengthens local democracy—the level at which America’s ideals come closest to reality. Make it easy for your readers to join the discussion about the future of their community.