Fresh off of adopting an emergency law that requires relocation assistance be given to low-income tenants facing eviction, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to consider on Monday broader and potentially stronger measures to aid local renters.
The council is set to discuss a memo from council members Tom DuBois, Karen Holman, Lydia Kou and Cory Wolbach to review and potentially strengthen the city's renter-protection laws. Among the changes that the four council members recommend exploring is stronger enforcement of an existing requirement of annual leases; additional mediation services for tenants and landlords; and "reasonable relocation assistance" that landlords must provide to tenants in multi-family developments.
The emergency law that the council passed on Aug. 27 dealt only with the lattermost issue. It established a required payment of $7,000 to $17,000 per household in relocation assistance. The law, however, stops well short of what most council members were hoping for. It only applies to complexes with 50 or more apartments. And, more controversially, it only covers households with an income level below Santa Clara County's area median income (for a single-person household, this amounts to about $86,000).
The decision to limit relocation assistance to those of lower income was made by Councilman Greg Scharff and Mayor Liz Kniss and opposed by the majority of council members present (Tom DuBois and Karen Holman lobbied for either a higher income threshold or no income limit at all). Because the emergency measure required support from seven of the eight council members present to pass, the council approved the income restriction as a compromise, after Scharff indicated that he would otherwise vote against the ordinance.
Unlike the Aug. 27 measures, the ones that the council will consider on Sept. 10 will be considered through standard council procedures, with only five of nine votes needed to pass a permanent ordinance. As such, it will give those council members who have argued for the past year that the city needs to strengthen its rental protections -- namely, DuBois, Holman and Kou -- more leverage to change the law.
At the same time, the new proposal stops well short of the memo that DuBois, Holman and Kou released last fall. At that time, they urged exploration of a "rental stabilization" ordinance that would restrict the ability of landlords to sharply raise rents. The proposal proved deeply polarizing and ultimately fizzled by a 6-3 vote.
The new memo, which now includes Wolbach as a co-signer, does not include any restrictions on rent increases. Instead, it calls for exploring relatively non-controversial processes like mediation and stronger enforcement of an existing law requiring annual leases.
While the emergency ordinance was passed largely as a response to concerns from tenants of President Hotel, who are now facing eviction from the downtown apartment building, the permanent ordinance is aiming to address broader housing trends -- namely, exorbitant costs and a shortage of supply.
"Housing that has been built is predominantly high-end or, to a lesser extent, subsidized, low-income housing," the memo states. "The needs of moderate-income workers and families too often have been ignored. These trends undermine our social and economic health and cannot be sustained.
"While Palo Alto is working to increase our supply of housing, especially very low, low and moderate levels, many renters face precarious housing stability," the memo states.
The Monday discussion will also give the council a chance to revisit and potentially modify a permanent ordinance that they approved on Aug. 27 that essentially mirrors the emergency law on relocation assistance. Several council members signaled at the last meeting that they do not support some of the provisions proposed by Scharff and Kniss.
Wolbach, for one, said he opposes the income restriction proposed by Scharff (though Wolbach supported it after recognizing that without Scharff's support, "we'll have no emergency ordinance at all"). DuBois and Holman also criticized the means restriction, as well as the provision limiting the relocation-assistance requirement to complexes with 50 or more units.
Kou had recommended applying the law to complexes with 20 more units. Even though that proposal didn't prevail, Holman said she would be interested in exploring it for a permanent ordinance (though not for the emergency ordinance).
Councilman Greg Tanaka, meanwhile, categorically rejected renter protections and likened them to "putting up a drawbridge" to protect existing residents at the expense of newcomers. Tanaka, the sole dissenter on the emergency ordinance, said the city's main problem is an inadequate housing supply.
"By making the supply so restrictive, prices get jacked up," Tanaka said.
The four co-signers of the new memo acknowledge that the renter ordinance is just part of the city's answer to the housing crisis, which "requires production, preservation and protection."
"Renter protections are only one part of protecting and expanding our existing housing supply," the memo states. "This initiative is not intended to substitute for other measures that may be addressed separately from this memo including short-term rental abuses, loss of existing housing units and investment homes left vacant for long periods of time."