One of the liveliest city council meetings in the area occurs each Tuesday night in East Palo Alto, where decisions are frequently made for political rather than practical reasons, and where emotions run strong and tempers frequently flare.
This past Tuesday night I watched the EPA council on our local cable channel as council members unanimously decided to impose a moratorium until June 30 on any rent increases of more than 3.2 percent.
The hastily-put-together ordinance was clearly targeted at Page Mill Properties, who recently purchased some 1,600 rental units in the city. In late November, the developer notified tenants of a rent increase – an average of 9 percent with most ranging from $36 to $150 a month. Page Mill was going to use the increased rents to spruce up the units and provide more safety.
In the process of purchasing the units, the city issued to Page Mill “Certificates of Maximum Rent” which allowed the developer to increase rents up to 37 percent. But when tenants complained of the average 9 percent increase, the city’s Rent Stabilization Board stepped in and said only a 3.2 percent increase was allowed. Page Mill complained and the argument wound up in the council’s lap.
There were several of what I would “irregularities” that occurred at Tuesday’s council meeting, as the council pushed uncompromisingly for a moratorium on rent increases.
Last week the emergency moratorium proposal was turned down by a 3-0-1 vote; 4 votes were needed for adoption.
This week the ordinance was not listed on the agenda as an emergency ordinance. An ordinary ordinance requires a 72-hour advance public notice and requires a 30-day wait to become effective. Tuesday’s freeze ordinance was placed on the agenda with less than a 72-hour notice. Page Mill challenged the untimely notification, but the council went ahead and adopted the freeze, suddenly labeling it an emergency ordinance and making it effective immediately.
Councilmember Ruben Abrica, who lived in one of the units with his brother, claimed he didn’t have a conflict of interest and voted for the rent freeze, although Abrica’s name is allegedly on the 10-year-old lease.
The certificates of maximum rent were ignored by the council, since the freeze it enacted stipulated rents could be raised no more than 3.2 percent.
And Page Mill claimed that the city may have acted illegally since it is adopting an ordinance that affects the rent stabilzation ordinance adopted by a popular vote, and that only another popular vote can amend the ordinance. The council didn’t seem to care.
I sympathize with the tenants who are suddenly confronted with rent increases they were not expecting. But I also know that Page Mill has said it would help out those with limited incomes who could not pay the full increase.
Many of the apartment residents have complained about the conditions in their units – rats and vermin, sinks that did not work, stoves that weren’t operating properly. If Page Mill will spruce up these apartments, the tenants might enjoy the better living conditions. And while a 9 percent average increase can hurt, some rental increases are probably warranted – a 3.2 percent increase is a bit unreal in today’s world.
It will now be up to the courts to settle these issues – a costly undertaking for both the city and the developer. Too bad compromises could not have occurred around a conference table instead of in a courtroom. A moratorium is not a solution.