The East Palo Alto City Council will discuss Tuesday evening a new tenant-protection ordinance that's been in the pipeline for more than a year and aims to address what the ordinance describes as an increasing "imbalance of bargaining power between landlords and tenants" in the city.
The main issues being brought to the table are tenant organizational rights and distribution of related literature, unilateral lease changes, occupancy standards, demolition permits, temporary and permanent relocation and retaliation. These core issues reflect concerns expressed by two organizations with much at stake with the fate of the proposed ordinance: the city's largest landlord, Equity Residential, which has a track record of controversial evictions and dealings with tenants, and nonprofit Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto.
"In some ways, (the ordinance) is a continuation of what the city since its very incorporation has been doing to try to find ways to resist forces of gentrification and displacement of people," said Councilman Ruben Abrica, who's been with the two iterations of the council working on the ordinance since 2011.
The new ordinance provides tenants the right to organize "for the purpose of addressing issues related to their living environment, including but not limited to rental rates, housing services, conditions of the premises and other terms and conditions of tenancy." It also states that a landlord may not prohibit a tenant or tenant organizer who lives in a building or residential complex from using common areas in the building to distribute literature to other tenants, including information that relates to "issues of common interest or concern" for the tenants. Landlords may, however, establish their own "reasonable" requirements as to where, when and how much such information can be handed out on their property.
Other provisions include protections against discrimination based on actual or perceived race, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, ethnic background, nationality, place of birth, immigration or citizenship status, religion, age, parenthood, marriage, pregnancy, disability, AIDS or minor or student/nonstudent occupancy status.
There are also various assurances about landlords' responsibilities, from exercising due diligence in completing repairs or maintenance to not threatening, bribing or intimidating tenants.
"There are many ways in which I think some landlords -- not necessarily all of them -- try find ways to push tenants out," Abrica said. "And there's all the legal means for evictions, but I think what many of us have seen is these indirect ways, these pressures, these ways in which people end up being displaced. These are the ones that concern me."
In a March 21 letter to the city attorney, Community Legal Services compels the city to make sure the ordinance protects any tenant who meets the burden of proof that a landlord has harassed them in any way.
"We understand the need to balance this interest against landlords' interest in lawfully evicting problem tenants, yet we believe that the balance is appropriately struck by requiring the tenant to bear the burden of proving bad faith as part of an affirmative defense in a court of law," the letter states.
The ordinance also establishes broader relocation benefits and assistance in hopes of deterring unfair displacement, which the ordinance links to the decreasing availability of housing in the area.
"That's really the main motivation for us, to try to find ways to relieve some of this potential pressure for relocating tenants," Abrica said.
Equity Residential firmly opposed the ordinance when the council first discussed it at its Jan. 21 meeting, but the firm has since reversed its position. In a March 21 letter, Equity Residential's attorney, Corinne Calfee of SSL Law Firm, wrote that the firm supports the revised ordinance.
"Although we expressed concern about the TPO (Tenant Protection Ordinance) in January, it appears that ongoing discussions with community stakeholders have resolved many, if not all, of the fundamental problems with that draft, while still addressing the concerns of tenants and tenant advocates," Calfee writes.
However, Calfee cites several provisions on which Equity's stance still differs from Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto's. Calfee calls a new section proposed by Community Legal Services relating to unilateral leases "illogical and preempted by state law."
"Leases are contracts, which by their nature require bilateral consent to modification," she writes. She also claims that CLSEPA's proposal infringes on landlords' right to increase rents.
The letter also states that Equity Residential does not believe the city needs to regulate relocation benefits and criticizes Community Legal Services' proposals on the issue. CLSEPA suggests excusing tenants who are temporarily relocated from paying rent, requiring landlords to pay two times the daily pro-rata portion of the average San Mateo County rent and to find replacement accommodations within 7 miles.
"Either the tenant does not pay rent while they cannot occupy their unit, or they receive temporary relocation benefits, but it constitutes unjust enrichment if they receive money from the landlord while not paying rent for their tenancy," Calfee writes.
Calfee cites the City of Berkeley as an example of a municipality that does require tenants to continue to pay rent during short-term relocation.
The council will meet Tuesday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. in City Council chambers on the first floor of 2415 University Ave., East Palo Alto. Read the agenda here.