News

Tenants' rights group demands East Palo Alto records

Statewide organization wants documents related to Rent Stabilization Program audit

A statewide organization for renters' rights has filed a Public Records Act request with the City of East Palo Alto after an audit the city's Rent Stabilization Program caused the program's highly regarded manager to resign.

Attorneys for Tenants Together filed the request to City Attorney John Nagel on May 6. The request asks for documents between June 1, 2012 and May 1, 2014, related to the audit, including any communications by City Manager Magda Gonzalez. Gonzalez hired an outside consultant to conduct the audit, which was one of four program audits intended to increase efficiency, Gonzalez has said. The rent-program audit spotlighted manager Carol Lamont, although she was not directly named, and criticized her for a "a perceived lack of neutrality" against landlords.

Since Lamont announced her resignation to the rent board on March 12, board members and lawyers for tenants' rights have blasted the audit as a targeted attack on Lamont. She is a longtime housing professional who worked for the San Francisco Foundation and on federal Housing and Urban Development programs before administering East Palo Alto's rent-stabilization program. May 10 will be her last day as manager.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of Tenants Together, lamented her resignation.

"We're very concerned that we're losing such a very competent person," she said. "This is such a one-sided audit; we are concerned that it is so biased and we want to know what is behind it."

Gonzalez has said the audit is part of an overall plan to make city programs more efficient. But fair-housing advocates remain deeply concerned about big-money real estate forces that have a history of trying to dismantle the rent stabilization program, and those attacks are ongoing, Simon-Weisberg said.

"There's an assault on all of these rent-control units. Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto has been using tremendous resources to protect the tenants," she said.

Simon-Weisberg said she is concerned that the lopsided audit might be the first salvo to knock the legs out of the city's rent-stabilization ordinance, which protects residents against exorbitant rent increases and provides both tenants and landlords with a platform for grievances. She added she hopes the public records request will reveal what, if any, influence landlords may have had in the audit's launching or its outcome.

The rent-control ordinance was previously attacked by former landlord Page Mill Properties, a Palo Alto company that bought nearly 1,800 units on the city's west side of U.S. Highway 101, adjacent to Palo Alto, in 2006 and 2007. Known as Woodland Park, the apartments and homes make up more than half of the city's rental housing, according to the city. Page Mill and East Palo Alto were embroiled in 14 lawsuits starting in 2008 over the rent-control ordinance. Most were filed by Page Mill. The city revised its ordinance in 2010 with voter approval.

Apartment mogul Sam Zell of Chicago-based Equity Residential Properties purchased Page Mill's holdings from Wells Fargo Bank in December 2011 after Page Mill defaulted on a $50 million loan payment. Seven months later, the company sent out mass eviction-warning notices to many tenants.

Lamont spoke openly to the media about the notices at that time. Many tenants were allegedly told to pay rents in excess of the amount allowed under the rent-control ordinance, she said. Equity Residential denied those charges.

An April 7 Bloomberg Businessweek story, "In Silicon Valley, a New Investment: Eviction," focused on concerns regarding Equity Residential and the loss of affordable housing through its evictions and rent increases. An East Palo Alto family also filed suit against Equity on April 28, alleging that a host of unsafe conditions forced the family to vacate their home.

Community members recently urged the city to put more protections in place for tenants, with more than a dozen residents -- many speaking in Spanish through interpreters -- speaking at an April City Council meeting. At the meeting, the council unanimously threw its support behind a new tenants' rights ordinance, and officially approved it this week.

Comments

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

YAY! Major egg on the face of the lousy city manager Magda Gonzalez. I hope she gets hoisted by her own petard. She cares nothing about city residents, and her current role is merely a stepping stone - and she specializes on stepping *on* people. This is what happens when you underestimate others and overestimate yourself - it comes back on you, hard. Hiring a buddy to do an "audit" - a buddy who knows nothing about rent stabilization, so as to impugn an excellent program and fabulous employee, was transparently obvious. Now, Magda's chickens are coming home to roost. And speaking of chickens - why did she interrupt the lunch service for low income seniors in E. Palo Alto? What sort of creature prevents elderly folks from eating???

And major egg on the face of EQR...let's see...there are the additional tenant protections against landlord abuse the city council just voted in...there is the big lawsuit against EQR from an EPA family...there is the Bloomberg news story showing EQR's heinous investment strategy...there is the big lawsuit *won* by mobile home residents in San Jose against EQR's REIT...there is the continued excellent work done in EPA by CLSEPA.

Thank you, Sue Dremman, for another good article. Looking forward to follow up articles about this records request.


Posted by Sammy, a resident of Midtown
on May 11, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Mmmmmm....Really? Pure Rhetoric At It's Best.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 21, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Is there an update to this story? Has the records request been fulfilled, ignored, rejected? Is the city following through in getting the records to Tenants Together?


Posted by Aquamarine, a resident of Stanford
on Jun 2, 2014 at 10:46 am

I'm curious, too. What is the status of this records request? Has the city complied?


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 10, 2014 at 10:28 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

Is there an update on this, Palo Alto Weekly? Gonzalez has apparently rushed to hire a new administrator for the rent program, and is trying to ignore the problems and messes that she has created in various departments around the city.

Oh, and this is the landlord that Magda Gonzalez (and so many here in Town Square) have been defending - a landlord who tried to evict a tenant over a debt of .75: Web Link


Posted by Memories, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2014 at 1:56 pm

The Daily News published this story today: Web Link

It makes good sense to avoid not just a conflict of interest, but the appearance of favoring a landlord who repeatedly violates the rent stabilization law and is the defendant in a multimillion dollar lawsuit that illustrates that lack of compliance. It's shamefully stupid to think that people aren't noticing Gonzalez's lack of judgement regarding Christopher Peter and Equity Residential's Woodland Park Apartments.

Why is a property manager with such a lousy record allowed to serve on this rent board? What is the protocol when someone on a board overseeing a program is actually in violation of that program's requirements? Doesn't this seem like it might be a violation of some important rule?

Since Tenants Together made the records request of the City of East Palo Alto's documents involving the rent control program, a good question to ask is: Is City Manager Magda Gonzalez pulling an Oliver North and having a shredding bonanza? Another important question: Just what ARE her or her family's real estate interests in the city? What about her alleged relative who is a true slumlord, a non compliant property owner? Since she took the job of city manager, then her brother became a rental property owner in East Palo Alto, did she disclose that information properly? Where are the reporters in all of this? Are any of them at this publication checking into issues that affect thousands of local residents?


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 10, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Well, the records request has been fulfilled, Tenants Together has issued a press release, and I'm looking forward to being updated via Palo Alto Online.


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