A five-person majority of the Palo Alto City Council early Tuesday morning was ready to vote for a staff proposal to require the owners of the city's largest apartment complexes to pay relocation assistance to any tenant they evict without cause.
It's not a radical idea and mirrors the actions taken in many other communities suffering from rising rents as a modest way to help tenants cope with a renter's worst nightmare.
Under normal circumstances, five votes would have passed the measure. But since it was presented as an emergency ordinance requiring four-fifths approval of those present it needed seven votes (Councilman Adrian Fine was not at the meeting), meaning that just three people could — and did — control the outcome and effectively had veto power over their colleagues.
Councilman Greg Scharff pre-empted a vote on the much stronger staff recommendation, which proposed required payments to any tenant being evicted for no cause from an apartment building with 50 or more units. Instead, he proposed that payments be made only to tenants whose household income was up to 80 percent of the county's average, or about $66,000. Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Greg Tanaka joined Scharff to form the three-vote block that would determine the outcome.
After several unsuccessful efforts by others to bring one of the three over to the majority's side, a "compromise" was adopted that will require payments to any tenants with household income up to the county's median income, or approximately $85,000 for a single-person household.
The Scharff approach renders the attempt to assist evicted renters largely ineffective and falls significantly short of what other cities have implemented.
It is likely to result in very few payments being made, since rents are so high in Palo Alto that most tenants earning less than the county's median income level can't afford to live here in the first place, and certainly not in the estimated 35 larger complexes in the city that will be subject to the ordinance. While cast by Scharff as focusing the relocation assistance on the "most vulnerable" lower-income renters, the big winners are the companies that own apartment buildings and developers contemplating buying apartment complexes. What few payments they will be required to make are a pittance compared to the staff recommendation.
The development of a Palo Alto response to the rental housing crisis was deemed a priority by the council earlier this year and will be the subject of a council meeting in September. But the outcry over the surprise announcement in June by the new owners of the 75-unit President Hotel Apartments that it would be converting the building back into a hotel has forced the city to act more quickly if it is to benefit those about-to-be-evicted tenants.
Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners has served eviction notices on all tenants in the building and given them until Nov. 12 to move out. The firm announced it would voluntarily pay $3,000 to each tenant in relocation assistance.
Residents and housing advocates were hoping the city would block the conversion based on interpretations of zoning rules that prevent a change in use of buildings that don't currently comply with the zoning code. That possibility appears mired in legal positioning and threats by the new owners, and discussion of the President Hotel was avoided by the council because the proposed renter relocation-assistance ordinance can't target a specific project without creating additional legal risk for the city.
So the city staff had proposed an ordinance very similar to what other cities impacted by skyrocketing housing prices have adopted, with required payments to all evicted tenants (without any income threshold) equal to approximately three months' rent. It proposed payments starting at $7,000 for a studio apartment and increasing to $17,000 for an apartment with three or more bedrooms.
Staff also recommended that the council adopt a requirement that the landlord disclose the reason for all evictions and pay an additional $3,000 to any tenant occupying a below-market apartment.
By comparison, Santa Monica currently requires a range of base relocation payments of $10,000 to $21,000 to evicted tenants, plus an additional $1,500 to $3,000 to low-income tenants.
Perhaps Scharff, Kniss and Tanaka are simply so far removed from the days they were renters that they can no longer relate to the vulnerability and disruption in lives that occurs when an apartment owner forces out a tenant for no reason other than desire to increase the unit's financial returns.
But in the midst of a universally acknowledged rental housing crisis, the owners of large apartment complexes who evict their tenants without cause should not be the ones getting council relief through the adoption of only token relocation benefits. In a housing market like ours, generous relocation assistance should have been the easiest measure to adopt, and it is regrettable that three votes were able to block its adoption.