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Issue Spotlight: Mandatory Mediation

January 20, 2018

Mandatory Mediation: What it is and What it isn’t

 

 

On December 12, 2017, the Marin County Board of Supervisors adopted the Rental Housing Dispute Resolution program, aka “mandatory mediation.” What is the Rental Housing Dispute Resolution program, and what isn’t it?

What it is

 

Under the program, a tenant can require his or her landlord to enter a mediation process with a neutral third party when a rent increase of more than 5% over 12 months is proposed. The parties must participate in good faith for the entirety of the mediation process, even if the landlord and the tenant do not settle their dispute through mediation.

What it isn’t  

 

It isn’t rent control.

 

The program does not limit or control a landlord’s right to set rents at any level he or she think appropriate or to adjust rents at any time they choose.

 

It isn’t a precursor to rent control.

 

In a series of three workshops in October through December 2015, County staff presented the Board of Supervisors with a list of potential options for preventing displacement and preserving affordability in the rental housing market. The Board chose among the options and adopted a work program. The Board specifically rejected rent control from consideration. In January 2018, the Supervisors reviewed progress on the work program and, again, specifically rejected rent control, even though it wasn’t in the work program or on the table.

 

It isn’t a mandate to settle disputes.

 

The only “mandate” in the program is a requirement for the landlord to participate in good faith in the entirety of the mediation process, even if the landlord and the tenant do not settle their dispute through mediation.

 

It isn’t the beginning of a rent control bureaucracy.

 

Mediation service will be provided by the County’s Consumer Protection Unit, which already offers mediation services. Based on the limited number of mediation requests currently reported by the Consumer Protection Unit, it is unlikely that the expanded service will require more staff or more budget.

 

It isn’t a new fee.

 

There will be no charge for the mediation process.

 

It isn’t a reason to raise rents.

 

Will landlords who typically hold off increases for several years boost rents 5% every year because they fear unforeseen expenses or the likelihood of rent control in coming years? They shouldn’t. Landlords have testified that they avoid raising rent as a way to encourage good tenants to stay. Raising rents by 5% every twelve months would bolster the arguments for rent control, which the County has taken off the table, so far. Landlords can raise rents by as much as needed to deal with unexpected costs whether or not their tenant asks for mediation. The only mandate is to participate in the process.

 

It isn’t likely to do much.

 

The Rental Housing Dispute Resolution ordinance is just barely “mandatory.” It doesn't require tenants and landlords to resolve their issues. It doesn’t require a written determination of the merits of the issue(s) that was mediated or other follow-up, such as a public hearing, if the parties fail to settle. Only rent increases above 5% are subject to mediation. Mandatory mediation doesn’t require the landlord to make needed repairs.

 

Mountain View adopted a similar mandatory mediation program, but did not receive any requests for service in the first six months the program was active, because tenants simply had no incentive to participate. Shortly thereafter, Mountain View voters preempted mandatory mediation by adopting rent control.

 

Maybe a mandatory mediation program that doesn’t do much is a precursor to rent control…

 

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