As tenants of President Hotel brace for eviction next week, a local nonprofit that focuses on fair-housing services issued a letter on Friday to the building owner, requesting that two of the remaining residents be granted a temporary reprieve because of their disabilities.
Project Sentinel, the nonprofit that provides housing mediation services in Palo Alto and other jurisdictions, is urging AJ Capital, the new owner of the building at 488 University Ave., to provide "reasonable accommodations" for two tenants who have disabilities, the nonprofit's Executive Director Ann Marquart told the Weekly.
The two residents, Dennis Backlund and Michelle Kraus, had both publicly appealed to the council in recent weeks and months to reach out to AJ Capital to grant them a temporary stay. AJ Capital had purchased the historic building last year with the goal of converting it into a hotel.
"At least two of the current residents at President Hotel have disabilities that are hindering their search for alternative housing," Marquart told the Weekly. "It's going to be very difficult for these people to find new housing and, adding to their difficulty beyond the housing crisis, is the fact that they are disabled.
"We are requesting reasonable accommodations on their behalf."
Backlund, a former historic preservation planner in Palo Alto, personally addressed the council on Monday and asked council members to request "in a non-binding manner" that AJ Capital extend the lease of remaining tenants until end of June.
He noted that the process for acquiring the city's approvals for the hotel conversion could take up to a year.
"There is not a real need for an eviction to happen now, but I am afraid it will happen unless the council does make a recommendation," Backlund said.
While the city opted not to intervene with AJ Capital, Marquart said her agency plans to do just that. The agency is relying on the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status and disability. The act also makes it unlawful for people to refuse to make "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford ... person(s) (with disabilities) equal opportunities to use and enjoy a dwelling."
Backlund and Kraus are among the roughly two dozen residents who remain in the 75-apartment building, which was purchased by AJ Capital in June 2018. The new owner had initially planned to evict the residents in November but then later agreed to extend their stay until January if they signed an agreement that commits them to not opposing the hotel conversion. As part of the agreement, AJ Capital also offered to extend the leases until June if the City Council would approve two zoning changes: a removal of the downtown cap on non-residential development and the deletion of a "grandfathered facilities" clause that requires historic, renovated buildings to retain existing uses -- that would help facilitate the hotel conversion.
The council declined to make these changes by AJ Capital's stated deadline of Dec. 17, though the Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider the "grandfathered facilities" provision this Wednesday..
While the city's position and AJ Capital's refusal to extend the tenancy makes it highly unlikely that most of the residents will see their tenancy extended, Project Sentinel hopes the developer will make an exception for the two residents with disabilities.
"I'm assuming they'll grant reasonable accommodations," Marquart said. "If not, it could be a civil-rights suit."