San Mateo Mayor Jack Matthews made an interesting assertion in a recent editorial interview for the November election.
In response to a question about Hillsdale Garden Apartments, the 697-unit complex that sold for $97.3 million in 2006, Matthews told the Times that the city got the new owner, Essex Property Trust, to agree to cap its rent increases at $200 per year.
That was news to us. As we reported in early August, Community Development Director Bob Beyer met with an Essex executive July 27 to discuss the company’s rent increases, which were so high that they were driving long-time residents out of complex.
Beyer said the Essex representative told him at the meeting that the company had decided on its own to limit the increases in response to the outcry from residents, who were quoted in articles by the Times and other newspapers.
When we shared our recollection with Matthews, noting that more than one grateful resident had told us Essex wouldn’t have lifted a finger if they hadn’t gotten so much bad publicity, Matthews told us, essentially, not to flatter ourselves.
Well, Matthews’ account didn’t jibe with our recollection of events at all. In reporting the story, we found that the city hadn’t pursued the Hillsdale Garden issue with much vigor.
For instance, we recalled how Beyer told us July 13, two weeks before the meeting with Essex, that he didn’t “have any clue what’s going on” at Hillsdale other than what he’d read in the papers.
Bear in mind, Beyer made that remark four months after the Times first reported on the situation at Hillsdale Garden and three months after the Beresford Hillsdale Neighborhood Association wrote a letter to the city asking for help. (Beyer said the city never received the letter.)
So we called Matthews, who is up for re-election in November, and tried to get to the bottom of his account. Though he remained convinced that the city had helped prod Essex to reduce its rent increases, Matthews told us that we needed to talk to Beyer, since that’s where he’d gotten his information.
So we called Beyer. Beyer said the city had had no contact whatsoever with Essex prior to July 27, when he met with Craig Zimmerman, Essex’s vice president for acquisitions, and Bob Webster, president and CEO of Bohannon Development Co., which owns Hillsdale Shopping Center and the land underneath Hillsdale Garden.
Beyer confirmed that he did not make any demands. He said his best recollection was that Zimmerman told him that Essex had unilaterally decided to put in the price caps. (Since there is no rent control in San Mateo, Essex was within its rights to raise the rents, which had fallen well below market value.
“They heard what was being said and apparently took steps to do something about it, is the way I understand,” Beyer said.
Zimmerman politely declined to comment on the episode. Webster has maintained perfect silence. But a source with knowledge of the meeting confirmed Beyer’s account.
Though Matthews continues to maintain that the city exerted some sort of pressure on Essex, we haven’t seen any evidence of it.