No on Measure F

Bottom line up front: We applaud the St. Helena City Council for taking steps to secure the reasonably priced housing that is so desperately needed in our community, but Measure F is the wrong way to do it. We recommend voting against Measure F Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO).

We do not take this position lightly. Our board spent four hours interviewing supporters and opponents of Measure F, reading letters to the editor, and discussing the matter among ourselves. We talked to the supporters first, and while we asked several questions about possible unintended negative consequences, it wasn’t until we heard from the opponents – including Greg Reynolds, who is one of the owners – that we better understood the potential liabilities and problems with Measure F.

Measure F would give Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park residents the choice between a long-term lease subject to the park’s usual 3 percent annual rent increases or a short-term lease (12 months or less) in which maximum rent increases would be tied to the Bay Area CPI. But it doesn’t stop there.

The ordinance’s deepest flaw involves vacancy control. If someone buys a mobile home in Vineyard Valley and chooses a rent-stabilized lease, the owners would be prohibited from raising that space’s rent to market level – even if the previous rent was unusually low. This seems unfair to both the business and current tenants. It would be a bit like requiring a county tax assessor to freeze the new buyer’s tax bill at the property’s old value, even if it is decades out of date, leaving other tenants to subsidize the difference.

Over the long term, that provision could jeopardize the owners’ ability to maintain the park at its current high standards because of decreasing average revenue per rental, yet increasing costs of running the park.

While supporters of the RSO believe it will ensure stability in Vineyard Valley, we fear it may sadly do the opposite and destabilize the park. Despite the ownership’s assurances that they don’t plan to sell the park, Measure F could force their hand. The owners have already increased the standard lease term from seven years to 15, which gives residents a greater sense of security and should allay some of the fears of drastic rent increases if the park is sold. Under state law the new owners would have to honor any leases that are in effect when they buy the park.

An additional concern is that Measure F would set the troubling precedent of city government needlessly dabbling in private property rights. It’s not fair for the city to change the rules midstream for a property owner without some serious discussion. While it’s true that Vineyard Valley’s owners manage two other parks with some form of rent control or rent stabilization, those parks are not subject to the troubling vacancy control proposed by Measure F.

Measure F could also lead to an expensive legal battle if the park is sold and the new owner challenges the RSO in court. Calistoga fought a legal challenge to their RSO in 2015. They won, but at a cost of over $200,000.

We can see how the steady 3 percent increases and the recent water and wastewater increases raised concerns about the cost of living, especially for Vineyard Valley seniors living on fixed incomes. But Measure F isn’t the solution.

Our board is not unanimous, however, and supporters do raise some valid points.

The city invested $32 million in the flood project that especially benefited Vineyard Valley, and Measure F can be seen as protecting that public investment in reasonably priced senior housing. It’s true that Measure F would give residents who opt in an extra layer of protection in case the park is sold to corporate interests who may have little regard for the community’s values – as has happened to other family-owned businesses throughout the Napa Valley. Measure F has garnered an impressive list of endorsements from Rep. Mike Thompson, Supervisor Diane Dillon, State Senator Bill Dodd, Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, and the entire St. Helena City Council.

But after careful consideration, the majority of our board agrees that the drawbacks of Measure F – a heavy burden on the park owner, inequity between current and future owners, and a bad precedent for property rights – outweigh its potential benefits.

The vacancy control provision is the deal-breaker. We’re not sure the council fully realized the consequences of vacancy control when it passed the ordinance last November.

We believe the time, energy and resources the council is throwing behind Measure F should instead be directed toward building new workforce and senior housing.

Let’s do the hard work of building reasonably priced housing, instead of trying to put artificial controls on our current housing stock.

The majority of our board encourages readers to vote no on Measure F.

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The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.