News

Editorial: This week, the minority rules

With just three votes, a plan to help evicted Palo Alto renters is watered down

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.

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Comments

33 people like this
Posted by Concerned Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 31, 2018 at 7:21 am

It makes no sense that Palo Alto's city council refuses to seriously protect the more than 44% of its residents that rent. This is not just about the residents at the President. Other cities have managed to create renter protections that still allow landlords an exceedingly high bottom line in this skyrocketing rental market. The council has made a small start and should be encouraged by the residents of Palo Alto to proceed with more comprehensive renter protections. This is not about being anti-landlord, this is about protecting the 44% those whose lives can so easily be disrupted at whim.


19 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2018 at 9:03 am

Why should this relocation assistance only apply to apartments with 50 or more units? Most of the renters in Palo Alto live in single-family homes or small, older apartments, and they are just as needy. This smells like a giveaway to the tech workers living in large luxury apartment complexes rather than a protection for the renters who really are vulnerable.


39 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 31, 2018 at 9:08 am

Why would anyone believe Kniss, Tanaka, and Scharff would be interested to keep low income residents in Palo Alto? They want them replaced with more office buildings or very expensive housing for their friends.


29 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2018 at 9:38 am

Likely that Kniss' protege, Cormack, will vote with her and become the new Scharff.


14 people like this
Posted by A future
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2018 at 10:07 am

Another misguided editorial. The minority did not rule. The city is bound by votes on these emergency ordinances and that is what happened. But why doesn't the weekly ask why it came down to an emergency ordinance? Why didn't the council or council's past address this issue back then? Was it because a squeaky wheel needed greasing now?
Btw, BP, kuo,filseth,dubois and Holman do not care about low income residents either. The organization that supports them, pasz, opposed plenty of housing opportunities. Their goal is to perfect current homeowners, who have theirs and no one else needed apply.


13 people like this
Posted by Fine?
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 31, 2018 at 10:12 am

Any explanation for Fine's absence from this important meeting?


37 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 31, 2018 at 10:15 am

That's a good point that Cormack could just step into the shoes of Scharff. What a horrifying thought. She said in the Daily Post that she would not have voted to reduce the office growth cap. I give her points for honesty, but that's about it.


14 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 31, 2018 at 10:17 am

The Scharff/Kniss version of the Urgency Ordinance misses the boat yet again by framing the housing crisis as solely an affordable housing issue. It is not. There is an enormous shortfall of available housing throughout the region across all categories of residents. Most that live in the 'not so inexpensive' President Apartments are not low income, and they need relocation assistance too. The message to Palo Alto's electeds is please tune into the City that you work for. The forty-four percent that rent is growing rapidly and is closer to fifty percent. These are the people that vote and will keep you in office.


36 people like this
Posted by Greer Stone
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2018 at 12:10 pm

As a renter, and a Palo Alto school teacher, I struggle to find the wisdom behind this decision. As a city, we have the decision to make: do we take measures to protect our city's vulnerable residents, and those who add diversity to our community (both race and socio-economic diversity), or do we continue to merely pay lip service to affordable housing and maintaining a diverse community?

It saddens me to know the interests of Palo Alto renters are not protected, and I shudder to think what will happen to my own family if our landlord decides to evict us without cause. This disgraceful decision puts the interests of wealthy landowners/developers ahead of families, single mothers, teachers, nurses, custodians, and residents. Shame.


26 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 31, 2018 at 12:21 pm

Annette is a registered user.

There's a word missing from this sentence "Councilman Greg Scharff pre-empted a vote . . . ". The missing word is AGAIN.


34 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 31, 2018 at 12:21 pm

The editorial correctly pointed out that Scharff pre-empted a vote on the much stronger staff recommendations while cynically claiming he was focused on his concern for the lowest income renters. His motion actually removed all support for the majority of renters who are modest income and eliminated wrongful termination protections for renters in big apartment buildings citywide. This was clearly done with advance support and planning by Kniss. Tanaka went further. He opposed all renter protections. People should watch the tape to see for themselves his Orwellian claim that evicting low and moderate income tenants would actually increase diversity in our community by bringing in even more new, highly paid tech workers. This is the guy who Wolbach and Kniss convinced the regional Democratic Party leadership to strongly support in the last election despite Tanaka having been a lifelong Republican.
It is really sad to see the degree of cynicism that now dominates our local political power establishment.


10 people like this
Posted by A future
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Yes and kuo,Holman, Dubois and filseth are just poor innocents. Why haven't they done anything over the last few years to introduce rather protection. It is obvious that this would have passed a normal vote.
But of course the weekly can never criticize a pasz council member.
But they should be called to task for waiting for a squeaky wheel to greased


20 people like this
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2018 at 1:16 pm

Sheri is a registered user.

@A Future

At the October 16, 2017 meeting the majority of Council refused to even hear a collegues memo from Kou, DuBois and Holman “Regarding Strengthening Renter Protection for Palo Alto Residents”. So it's NOT "obvious this would have passed a normal vote."


1 person likes this
Posted by A future
a resident of University South
on Aug 31, 2018 at 3:30 pm

Sheri did you bother to read the first sentence in this story: "a five person majority......... was ready to vote.....

Regardless, my comment was taking about moe than a year ago- I was talking about 2,3 4 5,6..... years ago.


23 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 31, 2018 at 3:36 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Thank you, Sheri, for providing that critical correction to @A Future's post. Not only did the Council Majority, including Cory Wolbach, squelch consideration (not legislation, just directing Staff to study options) of renter protection that Dubois, Holman, and Kou put forward, they twisted it into a Rent Control discussion and somehow (was it magic or was it planned?) Council chambers was packed with people who spoke to the perils of rent control.

Successful issue conflation. Is that leadership or is that politics?

Currently the most obvious group of Palo Altans to be hurt by such shenanigans are the residents of the President Hotel, but the injury is much broader than that. The injury is insidious and it does not hurt only renters. This is about the heart and soul of our community. We are turning cartwheels to accommodate strangers who do not live here, yet disregarding neighbors who do. I sometimes wonder why so many people want to live in a city that functions this way. Are they equally detached? If the answer to that is yes, what sort of community will we become? This is all very worrisome.


20 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 31, 2018 at 4:39 pm

"We are turning cartwheels to accommodate strangers who do not live here, yet disregarding neighbors who do."

Not "we" but certain councilmembers who pretended to represent neighbors who live here, and who concealed the strangers who do not live here that provided major financial support, in order to get elected. Not that I imply they are incorrigibly dishonest--they have proven themselves to be reliable rock-solid investments for their backers.


14 people like this
Posted by Watcher
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 31, 2018 at 4:40 pm

@future...you want to be careful about reminding all Palo Alto voters that it was Cory Wolbach who is running for re-election was the sole vote that tipped the a renter protection colleague's memo to be shelved.

As for the Council members you named they were also preserving neighborhood character, health and safety. Especially the "safe routes to schools" route that Maybell is, there are children using the street.

As @future keeps bringing back...watch out...Cory Wolbach switches sides again.


4 people like this
Posted by Filseth also voted against rent control
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 31, 2018 at 11:42 pm

...probably because he understands it’s bad policy


18 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 1, 2018 at 11:11 am

In addition to Wolbach having opposed the Renter Protection initiative by DuBois last year, which would have helped the President Hotel and other renters, he made the motion last year that eliminated the Downtown Commercial Cap. If he had not done that, the buyers of the President would have known they could not convert the property to a hotel. The city is arguing that the conversion can be blocked because of a grandfathering issue, but the buyers are disputing that.


11 people like this
Posted by College Terrace
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 1, 2018 at 6:44 pm

College Terrace is a registered user.

When council members Tom Dubois, Karen Holman, and Lydia Kou, asked the other council members if they would be willing to explore measures the city could take to protect renters, there was no mention of "rent control." But in order to justify their no vote, each of the council members opposed kept repeating the request was about rent control It wasn't. How cynical can you get.

When council member Cory Wolbach learned of this request he said he had asked to add his name to the request, he had been turned down. He then went on to state that this request was lifted right out of his campaign stump speech and because his name wasn't included in the request he was going to vote no. And he did vote no.

As a result of council member Wolbach's swing vote, the council majority refused to consider any further renter protections. I can't help wondering if Wolbach had voted yes there would be measures in place, such as one year leases, that might have deterred AJ Capital from buying the building.

But then again, the city manager incorrectly told the prospective owners that they could convert the building into a hotel. Or at least, when he reported to the council that AJ Capital were buying the building said the buyer could "by right" (his words) convert it into a hotel. Which may reflect a culture at city hall that favors developers over residents, especially the most vulnerable in this booming economy, existing renters, many long term residents, who are being rapidly displaced.


10 people like this
Posted by Crusty
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 2, 2018 at 4:13 pm

"When council member Cory Wolbach learned of this request he said he had asked to add his name to the request, he had been turned down. He then went on to state that this request was lifted right out of his campaign stump speech and because his name wasn't included in the request he was going to vote no. And he did vote no."

Takeaway: Wolbach's wounded ego trumps residents' interests. Remember that in November.


12 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2018 at 8:40 am

"Or at least, when he reported to the council that AJ Capital were buying the building said the buyer could "by right" (his words) convert it into a hotel. Which may reflect a culture at city hall that favors developers over residents . . ."

MAY reflect?? I think Keane's comments at that CC meeting absolutely reflect the culture at city hall. I also suspect his "by right" comment is problematic for the City. Who said what to AJ Capital is unclear, but given that they parted with $65 million I think this story will have several chapters. Time will tell.

As for rent protections, I think it makes sense to keep in mind that most newcomers to Palo Alto will be renters, not homeowners. So the 44% number will likely swell. And that will ultimately be reflected at the polls. Our development policies have trapped us in a mess such that we are now faced with a battle between legitimate landlord rights and legitimate renter concerns. Yet some on Council and some running for Council think the cap on office/r&d was a mistake. Maybe before we developed our way into this huge problem set the concern that the cap limits our options was legit. Now, building office/r&d space at the rate in the Comp Plan before the recent change, is only a problem grower.

Vote carefully.


1 person likes this
Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 4, 2018 at 11:24 am

rsmithjr is a registered user.

Something as complex as renter protections should not be made "emergency" items on the council agenda. The rules for "emergency" items include a near-majority vote of the council. So, the outcome was very dependent on this so-called "emergency".

This was not an emergency. The issue has been around for a long time. In addition, a very wide range of options and possibilities was on the table.

Council should refrain from the misuse of the "emergency" agenda item.

Haste makes waste.




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