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.