Nearly 40 East Palo Alto families in recent months have been turned out of their rental homes with as little as 10 days notice due to a recent citywide crackdown on illegal housing. In response, more than 100 tenants, landlords and their supporters begged the East Palo Alto City Council on Tuesday night to invoke an emergency moratorium against the red-tagging of homes.
The crowd, which was backed by the interfaith group Faith in Action and pastors from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, told council members that the city's recent enforcement action against illegal second dwellings and structures deemed uninhabitable has created a crisis in the community. They asked the council for the moratorium and for help in finding solutions, including allowing nonprofit groups to bring the homes into compliance with city safety codes.
East Palo Alto has had a longstanding problem with illegal second dwellings, which have included converted garages, trailers, sheds and cottages on properties. City streets have seen increasing congestion with double-parked cars, trash and other hazards as more people have squeezed onto residential lots.
Until recently the city was unable to enforce its safety code due to a staffing shortage, Vice Mayor Larry Moody said by phone on Wednesday. The city had two code enforcement officers for many years, and only one last year. But it recently added four officers, which has resulted in an uptick in enforcement.
Griselda Gonzalez and her children, ages 4, 16 and 17, were living in a small trailer in a backyard until they were evicted on July 27. They stayed with a friend for awhile, then in motels for three days at a time; then they slept in a park. Eventually, they were living in their car in front of St. Francis of Assisi Church, she said.
Gonzalez, 39, is typical of many of those who face eviction -- underemployed or working for the minimum wage, or with disabilities or medical issues that have left them without much income. She works five hours a day preparing food in a restaurant, but she is looking for additional work, she told the Weekly in August.
"I tried to find another place. I do not qualify even for a studio because we are four people. I don't have the money. Studio apartments cost $1,300, $1,700," she said.
She paid $500 a month for her trailer. At most, she can afford $900 a month, but she doesn't have any money for first and last months' rent and a deposit. She has looked into the resources on a list the city provided, but they did not help. There's already a waiting list at the local agency for emergency housing, she said.
Maria Delgaldo, Gonzalez's landlord, told the council Tuesday that she felt very bad that her tenant has been evicted.
"We were helping each other out," she said of the income she received and the low rent Gonzalez paid.
"We understand that some of those homes may not be ready (to live in), but we don't want any more people living in the streets or the park or their cars. Please stop this," Delgaldo said.
Gonzalez's family has broken up. Her two older children now reside with a volunteer from the church; her 4-year-old is staying with the child's father. Gonzalez has been temporarily taken in by the church pastor, Father Lawrence Goode.
Goode said he met with a city building-department official, who informed him there were 39 red-tagged residences on the city's list. Red-tagged units must be vacated in 10 days. Speaking at the council meeting, Goode asked the city for the moratorium on housing condemnations.
"Are we safe? Are we better off?" he asked of turning people out onto the street rather than finding ways to rehabilitate the homes. "I'm not sure they are. ... There's never been a good time for an eviction. This has to be the worst possible time."
Carlotta Calvillo, a landlord, helped organize many of the people who showed up at City Hall Tuesday. She has a house with two rental units in the back. When she purchased the home several years ago, she was told the second house was registered in the county records, and she has paid taxes on the units. But now both have been declared illegal. The two families, a young couple with a 1-year-old child and a second couple with a 16-year-old, must move out.
Like Delgado, Calvillo and her husband, who is disabled, rely on the rental income to survive, she said.
"The building inspector wants me to demolish the house, but I don't have the money," she said.
Ramon Valencia and his family lived in one of Calvillo's units for 10 years. The code-enforcement officers have been harsh, he said, threatening him with arrest if he did not leave and also if he lives in his car.
Council members on Tuesday were constrained from discussing the subject because it was not on the meeting agenda; however, they made brief statements in response to the outcry.
Mayor Donna Rutherford said the council cares about the evictions.
"We live here; we've been through everything. All of us have been here," she said.
Councilman Ruben Abrica suggested the moratorium be put on the agenda soon. Moody said the issue absolutely needed to be brought back to the council.
"I do want you to go home with the assurance that this council cares about each and every one of you," he said. The council also does not condone any disrespect from staff of residents, he added, noting that he would suggest training for the new code-enforcement staff.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Moody sought to provide context regarding the code violations and evictions.
"I don't want to downplay the impact on families," Moody said. "But this idea that there's a desire to displace people is wrong."
The notices people are now getting did not come out of the blue, he said. Property owners have received as many as four prior notices to bring properties up to code, but many have not taken any action. The city allowed property owners to make the repairs without paying penalties.
"We told the community. You had a lot of time to bring stuff up to code. ... Here we are two years later. We're not aggressively seeking violators, but we are responding to the lack of compliance," he said.
Moody disagreed with the notion that inspections are primarily in response to neighbors who are complaining.
"It's not so much neighbors snitching on neighbors. The impact is externally obvious. There are a ton of cars on the streets. ... They've got a large amount of trash. We've got code-enforcement officers driving the streets now," he said. "All of a sudden someone says, 'I've got a lot of rodents in my yard that I didn't have before. I wonder where they are coming from?'"
"It's about safety," he said. "We have had issues associated with deaths that were related to code violations. It's not a campaign to red tag people; it's a campaign to enforce the code of the city."
While Moody supports looking at a moratorium, it isn't a long-term solution, he said.
Ultimately, people have to come to grips with the fact that many of these residences could be lost if they are not brought up to code. Some, on undersized lots, will not be allowed at all.
Moody said he agrees with Goode. He would support partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together and other groups to mobilize a home repair team. He said he is "totally in favor" of such a strategy to keep people in their homes.
Outside the Council Chamber Tuesday, Jennifer Martinez, executive director of Faith in Action, said that the evictions are not going to stop. Another one is expected Sept. 24.
She said that organizers will try to sit down with each of the council members to ask for their support. Four out of five would have to vote in favor of the moratorium for it to pass, she added.
"We will ask them to give us time to build a program to bring resources. (The landlords) can't bear the cost of bringing the buildings up to code. It's not because people don't care. It's an expensive proposition," she said.
Moody said Wednesday that in the past three years, there have been many discussions about updating the city's second-dwelling-unit ordinance. The city's recently released Draft Housing Element identifies such accessory homes as "an important affordable housing option."
In August, the city released the final environmental study for its Vista 2035 General Plan, a document that guides future decision-making. The General Plan supports the conversion of garages to inhabitable spaces if building codes are met and the number of parking spaces conforms to current zones.
Between 2010 and 2014, the city approved an average of 5.4 secondary dwelling units a year. The city staff estimate that 42 units will be produced over eight years, according to the Draft Housing Element.