City Council avoided a self-made controversy this week when they chose not to proceed with a ballot measure to update the City Charter in anticipation of changes to state rent control laws.

There’s certainly some confusion about what will happen in November but a troublingly consistent theme throughout the local discussion was how little renters and landlords know about the rules that govern either their income source and housing respectively.

This woeful lack of knowledge is particularly distressing because a significant revision to rent control rules will be on the ballot this year and if those whose livelihoods are dependent on the system are so ill-informed, what should we expect from the thousands of voters who are not part of the system?

Rent control governs housing units built before 1979. Rent for those units is set at 1978 levels plus any rent increases approved by the Rent Control Board (RCB). Those increases are determined by an established formula and the RCB can establish a dollar limit to the increase.

Units exempt from rent control include rentals to tourists of less than 14 days, owner-occupied buildings of three or less units, rentals by an approved list of organizations (hospitals, convents, monasteries, extended medical care facilities, asylums, non-profit homes for the aged), dormitories owned and operated by an institution of higher education or government housing.

Not covered are single family homes and condos if they meet certain qualifications and all newly constructed units built after 1979.

These rules were modified with the adoption of a State laws known as Costa Hawkins and the Ellis Act.

Prior to Costa Hawkins implementation, rents began at 1978 levels and were subject to increases at the discretion of the Rent Control Board. A new tenant paid the rent most recently paid by the prior occupant: the 1978 level plus any allowed increases.

After Costa Hawkins, rents are set to market rent when a tenant leaves.

The Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants if they are removing the property from the rental market.

It’s not that complicated but it might not be day-to-day useful so perhaps every renter and landlord doesn’t need to have this knowledge on the tip of their tongue but they should know how to find it (it’s in the City Charter and Municipal Code, both available online). If that’s too complicated, there’s an entire agency devoted to providing context and explanation. Give them a call, it’s literally what they are there for.

Individuals need to undertake this basic self-education because we can’t get to the substantive debate over a complex issue without a foundation in the basics. Spending meeting after meeting on remedial education saps the limited time and resources available. It also opens individuals up for manipulation by anyone with an agenda.

In this case, bad opinions didn’t create bad policy … yet.

There will be a spirited debate over Prop. 10. The proposal repeals Costa Hawkins and gives local jurisdictions control over their rent control rules. Hopefully voters will have a working knowledge of the subject when they begin to vote later this year. If it does pass, that knowledge will be needed again because something will have to be done to adapt the local rules to the new landscape.

The tools to shape yourself into an educated voter, on this subject or any other, are readily available, and we all have a responsibility to use them.