Palo Alto landlords will not be allowed to evict residential tenants whose ability to pay rent is being hindered by the coronavirus pandemic under a law that the City Council unanimously approved on Monday night.
The city's moratorium on evictions will remain in effect until the city's state of emergency expires. After that, residents would have 120 days to make full payment of the back rent.
The City Council's vote follows similar actions in San Francisco and San Jose. San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued on March 13 an executive order that places a moratorium on residential evictions and giving renters up to a month after the order's expiration to pay the back rent (though they can request numerous monthlong extensions). The San Jose City Council approved last week a 30-day moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent.
On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed its own eviction ordinance that applies to both residential tenants and small businesses. The county ordinance would apply to all cities within the county except those that have already adopted their own, more stringent, protections.
One difference between the county's ordinance and Palo Alto's is the expiration date. The county law expires on May 31, while the city's would remain in place until the city lifts its state of emergency, which could potentially be later.
Under all four ordinances, residents are required to offer documented proof that their inability to pay rent is attributable to the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought the Bay Area economy to a near standstill.
"It could be anything from a reduction in hours, a loss of job, reduction of income from businesses, illness of yourself or family member, the need to stay home because you fall under those categories under state order or because you have minor children who are home, who you must take care of," said City Attorney Molly Stump, whose office drafted the ordinance.
In approving the ordinance, the council acknowledged that it is making a tradeoff. While the move may help renters, it may harm small landlords who depend on rent to make their mortgage payments. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois pointed to Fannie Mae's announcement of a new mortgage forbearance policy for owners of multifamily buildings, with the conditions that they suspend all evictions for renters who are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus — a move that could help some landlords.
But Councilman Greg Tanaka said he was very concerned about someone like his neighbor, a lady who owns one rental unit and who relies on it to pay for her home.
"How do people like her survive, now that they're not going to pay the rent? I think we should definitely think about the unintended consequences. … I'm just worried that now, landlords aren't going to have a backstop,” Tanaka said.
But while some of his colleagues shared his concern, they said it's a worthwhile tradeoff, given the imperative of keeping people housed during a pandemic.
The moratorium will help people like Umbelina Martinez, a single mom who has lived at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto for 13 years. She shares a home with her three daughters and mother.
Martinez hasn't worked for two weeks. She was an on-call banquet server at the Four Seasons Hotel, which she said will be closed until June. As the sole financial provider for the household of five, Martinez is trying to figure out how she'll pay the next rent.
"I think we have enough food. ... The only thing that most of us are worried about is the rent," said Martinez, who on Tuesday morning hadn't yet heard about the city's eviction moratorium. "Most of us don't have an income since two weeks ago."
While numerous nonprofits, including SV@Home and Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, submitted letters to the council to move ahead with the ordinance Monday, not a single member of the public addressed the council on Monday night. Instead, for the second straight week, the Council Chambers was largely empty, with residents following the statewide shelter-in-place order. Only two council members – Mayor Adrian Fine and DuBois – attended the meeting, with the remainder joining them remotely through video conferencing software via Zoom.
"I think it's a health and safety measure," DuBois said. "And I believe mortgage forbearance is available, and it will become more readily available."
The council approved the urgency law by a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss recusing because she owns a rental property. The council also signaled its desire to create a similar moratorium for commercial tenants, again following in the footsteps of San Francisco and San Jose.
That decision, however, became less urgent on Tuesday morning, when the county adopted a moratorium that applies to both residential tenants and small businesses.
• Are you a Palo Alto resident who will benefit from the eviction moratorium? Tell us about your situation by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.