East Palo Alto City Council Tuesday night unanimously threw its support behind a new tenant-protection ordinance after hearing more than a dozen residents urge city officials to protect tenants against displacement, a decline in affordable housing and an imbalance between tenants and landlords.
The residents, many of whom spoke in Spanish through a translator, characterized the ordinance as a "moral obligation," necessary to preserve the character and diversity of East Palo Alto in light of increasing development and cost of living in the area.
The ordinance, which has been in the works since 2011, aims to right any imbalance between tenants and landlords in the area, providing for rights to organize, assurances against landlord discrimination and harassment as well as requiring broader relocation benefits.
"East Palo Alto can create a community where people with money and people with not much money can live together," resident Doroteo Garcia told the council in Spanish. "We don't want any displacement of people whose only problem is that they just don't earn that much money. We want to protect people who have contributed to the development of the community and have lived here for a long time. All we ask is this ordinance can be passed and that we have these rights. We're not asking for anything for free, we just want an accessible home in East Palo Alto."
All four council members present, with Mayor Laura Martinez absent, expressed their support for the ordinance after hearing from community members and quickly filed a motion to move it forward.
"There are not very many places on the Peninsula that can accommodate those who don't make a lot of money," said council member Donna Rutherford. "The council has to make a decision in good faith that we do want to protect our tenants."
"I think its critically courageous and we need to be commended as a council and a city for putting the stakes a little bit deeper in the ground to make sure we protect our residents and legacy as a city that's ... a little different," said council member Larry Moody. "But we're OK with being a little different."
The ordinance first came to the council this year in January, when East Palo Alto's largest landlord, Equity Residential, firmly opposed it, pitting the residential-firm giant against Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, representing tenants. The two organizations and their attorneys have been engaged in talks with city staff since then to resolve differences in opinion in what should or should not be included in the ordinance.
Valerie Armento, city legal counsel, said as of Tuesday that the two organizations had resolved all but three issues, down from seven still of concern in late March. The three outstanding issues were a section on demolition permit requirements, tenant relocation assistance and a provision that only awards recuperation of attorney fees to a tenant who wins a tenant-versus-landlord court case.
SSL, the law firm representing Equity Residential, recommended that staff remove a subsection relating to requirements for demolition permits, suggesting that imposing further development requirements on landlords is an "imposition of special conditions."
"We don't believe that to be true," Armento said. She said staff believes the language used is consistent with state law and overall best practices.
Community Legal Services also asked for clarification on the language relating to the second issue, tenant relocation assistance. It also asked that the ordinance cover not just low- and moderate-income units, as language currently states, but also extremely low-income units. Staff amended the language to reflect that. SSL opposed these changes.
For the final issue of a prevailing party recovering attorney fees in a tenant-landlord case, staff recommended the city not specify that only tenants or both parties can recover costs, citing concerns that such a provision might not be genuinely reciprocal.
"While its certainly appropriate for landlords to recover prevailing fees and cost, staff has some concerns if the provision is really reciprocal," Armento said. "State law says that the prevailing party gets to recover. In many instances, the prevailing party may be the landlord, in which case we question whether it would be admissible to include in the ordinance a provision that says that the landlord as a prevailing party would be able to recover costs from the tenant. It appears that the whole issue of who may recover what, since it is covered by state law would best be left to court that's deciding the case."
SSL had expressed concern that the ordinance only awarded recuperation to a prevailing tenant party and expressed support for this change Tuesday.
Equity Residential's attorney, Corie Calfee, urged the council Tuesday night to make the other changes her client requested, but council approved the ordinance to be introduced as is in a 4-0 vote.
The final ordinance will return to the council for official adoption on May 6.