As East Palo Alto braces for a new landlord to take over more than 1,800 housing units, city officials are considering changing the law to give tenants more protection against discrimination and possible displacement.
The revisions are prompted in large part by the recent sale of the Woodland Park housing portfolio, which was previously owned by Page Mill Properties. The company had significantly raised rents and challenged the city's rent-control laws in court before it defaulted on a $50 million loan in August 2010. Wells Fargo took over the properties and subsequently sold them to Equity Residential, which announced last month that it is planning to close the deal by the end of the year.
With the sale of the 1,812 units pending, the City Council asked staff last month to survey tenant-protection ordinances in other jurisdictions and consider what East Palo Alto can do to strengthen its own laws, Vice Mayor Ruben Abrica said.
"We saw what happened to Page Mill and we don't know yet what will happen to Equity," Abrica said. "It's part of our history to try to, as a city government, try to find ways to protect our vulnerable population."
The revisions could include new provisions banning discrimination against tenants based on age and detailing the landlord's obligations when tenants have to be displaced during remodeling of buildings, he said. Some of the provisions could simply be extensions of existing state and federal laws, he said.
"It doesn't hurt, from what we can tell, to have local law reinforce existing laws," he said. "It makes it clear that retaliation, discrimination, those types of things, will not be allowed."
Equity Residential, which is headed by Chicago-based mogul Sam Zell, prompted protests by tenants and community activists when it announced in September its interest in the properties. Many in the city, including Mayor Carlos Romero, had been hoping that Wells Fargo would split up the portfolio and sell it to numerous buyers.
Equity officials said last month that Equity will respect the city's rent-control laws and will remain committed to preserving rent-control housing in East Palo Alto.
Abrica said the council plans to review the recommendations from the City Attorney's office in the coming months and hold public hearings on the changes before adopting the ordinance revisions.