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/)