A proposal in Palo Alto to pass an "emergency law" to protect tenants facing evictions before California's new renter-protection law kicks in faltered on Monday night despite broad political support.
Instead, the council voted -- for the second consecutive meeting -- to delay adopting the urgency measure, which was proposed in a memo by Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou. The council's vote means that even if members approve the law on Dec. 9, it would only be in effect for about three weeks.
The ordinance was proposed as a response to Assembly Bill 1482, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October. The bill, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020, caps rent increases for most multifamily residences at 5% plus the rate of inflation and prohibits evictions without just cause.
But while the law aims to provide long-term protection for tenants, city leaders fear that it may be having the opposite effect in the near term. Alarmed by reports of landlords raising rents with the intent of driving out tenants before the new law kicks in, numerous cities, including Los Angeles, Redwood City and Menlo Park, have adopted ordinances designed to offer tenants protection until Jan. 1.
The memo from Kou and DuBois cites reports of landlords slapping tenants with rent increases as steep as 30%, eviction notices, and hikes in charges for parking, lock services and other amenities.
The delay on Monday was prompted by Councilman Greg Tanaka, who demanded that the city perform more outreach before adopting the urgency law.
"We owe it to the community to try to be as diligent as possible so we don't rush into something without making a mistake unnecessarily," Tanaka said.
With Councilwoman Liz Kniss recusing because she owns a rental property, all six council members had to sign off on the urgency law for it to take effect. That's because urgency laws require approval by a four-fifths majority of council members present, including those recused.
The law appeared to be on its way to passing when five council members signaled their support, with various degrees of enthusiasm.
"This is to protect people who have rented for a year or more and who are evicted without cause," DuBois said. "These are renters in good standing who are being evicted only to avoid state law. This is disruptive to our community."
Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Vice Mayor Adrian Fine were more cautious. Cormack noted that Palo Alto residents have not been overly supportive of rent control in the past, with 57% rejecting Proposition 10, the 2018 measure that aimed to give cities more flexibility in capping rent increases. She concluded that the law will likely benefit a few residents but said she would support it.
"What we are looking at tonight is the unintended consequence of the state law and whether we should put a Band-Aid on it," Cormack said.
Fine also supported the proposed ordinance but argued that the city should be doing far more to address the root issue: a shortage of housing. Despite the fact that the council set housing as a priority in 2018, the city has struggled to attract new developments.
"We should be doing everything to (achieve) our goal and we aren't," Fine said. "It's time to get with the program."
The law appeared to be on its way to passing before Tanaka proposed delaying the discussion by another week. DuBois rejected his proposal, leading Tanaka to vote against the ordinance. Tanaka then joined the rest of his colleagues in a separate vote to take up the subject again at the council's next meeting on Dec. 9.
The Monday hearing marked the second time that the council considered but failed to advance the urgency ordinance despite majority support. At the Nov. 18 meeting, with Fine absent and Kniss recused, Mayor Eric Filseth erroneously believed that there weren’t enough members present for the vote -- only five, when six votes would be needed.
The draft ordinance provided to the council by the City Attorney's Office seems to state as much, noting that municipal code section 2.04.270 “authorizes the adoption of an urgency ordinance … by four-fifths of the council.” Four-fifths of a seven-member council is 5.6 members -- or, rounded up, six.
However, the city's code actually states that an urgency ordinance to preserve public peace, health and safety "may be introduced and adopted at one and the same meeting if passed by a vote of four-fifths of the council members present."
With six members present on Nov. 18, the ordinance could have passed with five votes.
When Filseth at the November meeting stated his understanding was that the proposal would require approval from six council members, and no one at the meeting -- including any member of the City Attorney’s Office -- corrected him.
On Monday, in delaying the decision yet again, the council agreed to place the ordinance on its Dec. 9 "consent calendar," where issues are voted on without any debate or discussion. Between now and then, city staff will be notifying community members about the proposed law.
Some residents and stakeholders addressed the council on Monday, with most encouraging council members to approve the urgency law. The only exception was Keshav Kumar, public affairs coordinator for the California Apartment Association. Kumar warned that the law could hurt "mom and pop landlords" who had launched eviction proceedings against their tenants under the old law but would now have to restart the proceedings with a just-cause requirement.
But Martin Eichner, a former mediator at Project Sentinel, a nonprofit that provides housing mediation services, argued that AB 1482 leaves some tenants vulnerable during the period before the law kicks in. He said he recently partook in a roundtable event on AB 1482, where there was a general consensus that tenants who receive eviction notice before Jan. 1 will not receive protection under the new law.
"That leaves tenants in doubt and uncertain about what rights they have now," Eichner said. "That means they are not going to protect themselves."