Palo Alto broadens law to help evicted tenants

City Council moves to remove 'means test' from relocation-assistance law

In an abrupt change of course, the Palo Alto City Council approved on Monday night a law ensuring that tenants facing eviction would get some relocation assistance, regardless of their income levels.

By an 8-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council voted to strip away from the new law a controversial clause that limited relocation assistance to residents who make below the area median income, which is about $90,000 for a one-person household. That clause was championed on Aug. 27 by Councilman Greg Scharff and Mayor Liz Kniss, both of whom changed their position on Monday in siding with the majority.

Just like the prior version of the law, the one that the council passed Monday only applies to housing developments with 50 or more units. These include President Hotel, a 75-unit apartment building that is slated to revert to its original use as a hotel under a proposal from the building's new owner, Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners. Residents of the historic building at 488 University Ave., are now facing a Nov. 12 eviction deadline and their plight has revised the city's tense, yearlong debate over tenant protection.

The initial ordinance was approved on Aug. 27 in conjunction with an "emergency law," which granted qualifying tenants rental assistance and which required seven out of eight votes to pass. At that time, Scharff had indicated that he would oppose the emergency law, dooming it to failure, unless the accompanying permanent law included a "means test." He had initially proposed limiting assistance -- which ranges from $7,000 for studios to $17,000 for three-bedroom apartments -- to those tenants who make below 80 percent of area median income. He later acceded to setting it at 100 percent of area median income.

The council was prepared on Sept. 10 to officially adopt that ordinance on a "second reading," which is usually a formality. At that time, however, Councilman Tom DuBois moved to pull it off the "consent calendar" and hold a full discussion, a proposal that the council majority supported. On Monday night, with the "emergency" ordinance no longer in play, the council needed only a simple majority to change the law and remove the clause that several members acknowledged was a mistake.

Councilman Adrian Fine, who was absent during the Aug. 27 meeting, made the motion to remove the means test and said the council erred in including it.

"What we're saying is that those impacted by eviction deserve some type of subsidy," Fine said.

The Monday vote was a rare point of near-consensus on an issue that has created a deep fissure on the council. DuBois, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilwoman Lydia Kou have all advocated for the past year for exploration of stronger rental protections, including possible limits on allowed rent increases. Scharff, Kniss, Fine and Tanaka have all vehemently opposed anything resembling rent control.

Vice Mayor Eric Filseth voted against considering rent caps last October, though last week he joined DuBois, Holman and Kou in recommending that the council explore it as part of a broad package of potential reforms (the proposal nevertheless fell by a 4-4 vote). Councilman Cory Wolbach has also opposed rent control, though he joined DuBois, Holman and Kou this summer in submitting a revised version of the memo, which steers clear of rent stabilization but supports exploring more modest steps, including better enforcement of the city's requirement of one-year lease and a stronger mediation program. The council voted 7-1 last week, with Tanaka dissenting and Kniss recusing herself, to refer these steps to its Policy and Services Committee for further exploration.

Tanaka once again spoke out against adopting new policies to help tenants and appeared to agree with AJ Capital's attorney, David Lanferman, who claimed in a letter to the city that the proposed ordinance is unlawful and that it would not apply to President Hotel tenants. Lanferman wrote that "mandating universal relocation assistance payments without regard to the financial resources or incomes of affected tenants would be contrary to state law, arbitrary, unreasonable and not supported by substantial evidence."

Tanaka said Monday he is worried that revising the law would expose the city to "significant legal liability." When City Attorney Molly Stump disputed this assertion, Tanaka repeatedly pressed her to explain her legal rationale, a discussion that Stump said would be better suited to a closed session.

Stump noted that the law being considered by the council is general in nature and does not target President Hotel or any other particular development.

"It is my opinion and that of my office that this ordinance does not expose the city to significant legal liability or any legal liability," Stump said.

The council's removal of the "means test" provision was widely expected, given the council members' comments at prior meetings. DuBois reiterated his view that the restriction effectively ensures that the relocation-assistance ordinance would not apply to most people in Palo Alto, where income levels and rents are generally higher than in Santa Clara County as a whole. The council, he said, has an "ethical and moral imperative" to fix what he called a mistake.

"Eviction without cause is probably a renter's worst nightmare," DuBois said. "The one thing this does is provide a disincentive to remove a large amount of housing from the community."

Wolbach also said he was pleased with the new renter-assistance ordinance, which he noted was always the clear preference of the council majority. He urged all his colleagues to unite behind the revised ordinance. He also chided Tanaka for proposing to delay the vote, noting that the legal issues could have been raised three weeks ago, when Lanferman initially submitted his letter.

"There are a lot of Palo Altans across the city who live in properties this ordinance would cover," Wolbach said.

With the repeal of the income requirement all but certain, the two council members who supported it last week changed their positions. Scharff didn't make any comments during the discussion, while Kniss, whose family owns an interest in a rental property, said she was concerned that the city is "still really flirting with rent control," which she said she opposes.

As in prior meetings, the council's hearing featured comments from more than a dozen residents, including tenants of President Hotel and their supporters. Most speakers implored the council to remove the income restriction and do whatever it can to aid the tenants facing displacement. Roberta Ahlquist, an advocate for affordable housing, said it's unfortunate that the city of Palo Alto, which some on the council described as "paradise" earlier in the meeting, turns its back on its tenants. The city, she said, needs to consider rent control.

"You need to support the community," Alquist said. "Our community is the residents of President Hotel and everyone else who is having a hard time making a living."


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33 people like this
Posted by It's a Start
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2018 at 5:45 am

Thanks to all of the Council who voted for this, and also to the Weekly, whose recent editorial excoriated certain obstructionist council members who thankfully switched their votes last night. It was wrong to play politics when tenants are being kicked out of their apartments.

But we now need the Council to address the illegal proposal to convert the 75 apartments into a hotel. Under our laws, the upper floors of the building can only be used for residences - and if there are none for a year, those floors then can't be used at all. No doubt the building owner will then attempt to pressure the Council to make the hotel conversion legal and let it reap a huge profit. We should head this off now, perhaps by passing a law that such abandoned floors belong instead to the city, so it can use those for affordable housing.

28 people like this
Posted by this election
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2018 at 6:13 am

I regret voting for Tanaka and don’t remember why I did. I don’t recall him disclosing that he was a chamber of commerce representative. Tanaka needs to leave our City Attorney’s time to advise interests of residents instead of getting free legal advice for real estate operators.

We need every law or initiative that protects renters and residents and Tanaka could use tutoring about why that is good for the City.

This election no more risks or experiments

33 people like this
Posted by Fanny
a resident of University South
on Sep 18, 2018 at 6:46 am

Glad these dinos came around and removed the means testing. Thanks to Council Member DuBois for pulling this off the consent calendar for a full discussion.

Another full discussion necessary is the rent stabilization and just cause evictions as proposed for a study in the original October 2017 Dubois, Holman and Kou memo.

Wolbach vehemently opposes to have it studied and a full discussion. He talks a lot and proposes unmeaningful “compromises”.

3 people like this
Posted by Seeking Relocation Assistance
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 18, 2018 at 8:14 am

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Guy_Fawkes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 18, 2018 at 8:20 am

Guy_Fawkes is a registered user.

Sometimes even the most cynical council members are forced to do the right thing. Thanks to Kniss and Scharff for supporting tenant relocations.

22 people like this
Posted by Guy_Fawkes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 18, 2018 at 8:37 am

Guy_Fawkes is a registered user.

Interesting that Kniss spoke out against rent control as Mayor after needing to recuse herself on the issue one week before. Anyone want to file another fair political practices complaint? What happened to the investigation of her dubious campaign financing practices? They are just stacking up.

12 people like this
Posted by Broaden the Application
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2018 at 8:53 am

The concept could also be broadened to appease Palo Alto residents who are adamantly against the proliferation of RVs lining various streets in the city.

By issuing city-authorized 'no-fault' eviction notices to parked RVs, RV dwellers could then bring the citations to City Hall where they would receive a modest check for 'relocation assistance' to another location/vicinity (e.g. Mountain View) with the stipulation that if they ever parked in Palo Alto again, their RVs would be subject to impoundment + a very hefty fine.

Instead of being earmarked for nubulous 'infra-structure' expenses, the proposed hotel tax revenue could be utilized for the ongoing eradication of these visual eyesores.

21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 18, 2018 at 10:07 am

This was a good success for the President Hotel folks and other renters in big apartment complexes throughout the city. It only applies if owners want to evict tenants for no cause in big complexes like the President.
Unfortunately, as the article made clear Wolbach has successfully blocked for now any consideration of more meaningful renter protections similar to what San Jose and Mountain View already have and those protections have not slowed down their construction of new rental housing. What Wolbach has proposed is pretty much a nothing burger for renters wrapped in Wolbach’s claims that it is meaty.

9 people like this
Posted by Shearwater
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 18, 2018 at 10:35 am

Shearwater is a registered user.

To Seeking Relocation Assistance:
The relocation ordinance is only for Multi-family housing developments with 50 or more rental units.

Very glad the income test was removed. The relocation payment ($7,000/studio, $9,000/1 bedroom, $13,000/2 bedrooms, $17,000/3+bedrooms) will barely cover first+last+security deposit for a new apartment around here.

From to the ordinance: "According to rental market tracking sites Zumper, Trulia, and Rentometer, as of August 2018, the average rent in Palo Alto is approximately $2,300 per month for a studio, $2,900 for a one-bedroom, $4,300 for a two-bedroom, $5,600 for a three-bedroom, and $7,000 for a four-bedroom unit."

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 18, 2018 at 11:16 am

It is important to know where the other city council candidates stand on these issue. Have Alison Cormac and Pat Boone taken positions? If not, hopefully the papers and the debates will insist that they make there positions clear

3 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Oh well ... now low income folks will just have to cover the relocation payments for high income folks by seeing their rent increase to cover the extra costs. I guess its only fair since high income folks pay most of the income taxes.

5 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2018 at 12:07 pm

casey is a registered user.

So will Palo Alto landlords tack on a relocation assistance fee like how SF restaurants charge customers for the Healthy San Francisco mandate?

6 people like this
Posted by low income folks
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 18, 2018 at 12:35 pm

There are only a few rental buildings in Palo Alto with 50 or more units. The owners of these buildings still have to compete for renters with the market rate set by owners of all the smaller units not covered by relocation assistance requirements.

2 people like this
Posted by It's a Start
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2018 at 12:42 pm

"So will Palo Alto landlords tack on a relocation assistance fee?"

No -- and that sounds like wzCYfear-mongering. Few Palo Alto landlords are subject to this rule, and few of those would ever kick out good tenants willing to pay the rent. So only a tiny number of landlords need ever worry about paying for relocation. And they won't be able to charge a rent premium if they want to remain competitive with the much large number of units for rent in Palo Alto and surrounding areas.

28 people like this
Posted by Landlord Solution
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2018 at 2:16 pm

A simple one for me. I'm just gonna sell my two triplexes and move on. I'll be damned if I'm paying any tenant to relocate. That's their problem.

Or perhaps it's the new landlords' problem.

2 people like this
Posted by RVs
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 19, 2018 at 7:10 am

Ignoring the trolling on this topic, we do need to implement a humane solution for the RVs. East Palo Alto found some parking lots that can be used overnight. RVs can park in the evening and must be out in the morning. What if we did the same thing in the research park?

9 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2018 at 8:08 am

I'd like to urge the city council take a look at Toronto. They passed Housing Fairness Act, aka Rent Control, in April of 2017.

What happened after that? (1) rent increase accelerated, (2) vacancy dropped to historical lows, around 1 percent, and (3) new rental construction projects dropped sharply from 40-50 thousand units to around 10 thousand. Rest either scrapped completely or re-purposed to condos for sale.

I think similar consequences will probably happen in Palo Alto too. It is good news for home owners though. Palo Alto has too many rentals.

11 people like this
Posted by Support PA Renters
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2018 at 8:22 am

> The relocation payment ($7,000/studio, $9,000/1 bedroom, $13,000/2 bedrooms, $17,000/3+bedrooms) will barely cover first+last+security deposit for a new apartment around here.

Moving costs should also be included + a stipend for inconvenience and mental anguish (if any) as moving can be a very traumatic experience for some.

9 people like this
Posted by Questiom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2018 at 9:43 am

So how does this apply to the end of a lease. Suppose a landlord decides not renew a tenants lease, is that considered an eviction? Will he have to pay relocation fees?
Love how the council and the weekly suddenly became concerned with regrets when a greasy wheel needed oiling.

12 people like this
Posted by R. Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2018 at 9:59 am

QUOTE: + a stipend for inconvenience and mental anguish (if any) as moving can be a very traumatic experience for some.

Just how would this particular addendum be established? Would it require the assistance of an attorney and a clinical psychologist?

5 people like this
Posted by this election
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2018 at 10:03 am


As Shearwater posted, this is worth repeating

"The relocation ordinance is only for Multi-family housing developments with 50 or more rental units."

Heads up - renters pay premium rents in Palo Alto, either by paying a lot of money to live here when they could buy elsewhere maybe, or pay premium by sacrificing in terms of living space or living in outdated buildings.

This is not Toronto.

And the people Council should protect are also not in Toronto. They happen to be our neighbors, our friends, our kids' friends, teachers, younger residents, older people who can't easily move on a whim.

Everything should be considered and studied carefully.

Like this comment
Posted by mhardi01
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2018 at 11:52 am

Should be easy for council members to 'do the right thing'. At the cost of some legislated relocation payments (funded by the landowner), the city will now have a new 100 unit hotel generating another $1.5M in transient occupancy taxes to help fund a bloated budget.

7 people like this
Posted by There's More to the Picture
a resident of University South
on Sep 19, 2018 at 2:45 pm

The homeless vagrants in PA are also city residents to a certain extent. What can we do to help them along the lines of relocation assistance?

While they are not necessarily being evicted from a specific premise, perhaps a surcharge on local businesses could help ease the problem. After all, it is often the businesses who complain about the homeless presence in front of their stores and restaurants.

Something in the neighborhood of $2500.00 would be a reasonable start.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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