Renters struggle as Palo Alto City Council passes relocation assistance law

In a 5-1 vote on Jan. 31, Palo Alto City Council passed a law that expands tenant relocation assistance for renters living in buildings with 10 or more apartments. The law comes too late for the many tenants who were evicted before its passage, and other protections proposed by the Palo Alto Renters’ Association remain unpassed.

The need for renter protections could not be more urgent, according to members of the Palo Alto Renters’ Association, who pointed to pandemic-related financial hardship exacerbating the difficult situation of many lower-income renters — 80% of which are rent-burdened. Palo Alto renters make up 46% of housing in the city, and California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which was passed to prevent an eviction crisis during the pandemic, expires on April 1.

Under the new law, tenants are entitled to between $7,000 and $17,000 in relocation assistance after “no-fault” evictions, depending on the size of their rental property.

Palo Alto Renters’ Association community organizer Christian Beauvoir wrote that the law is a “testament to the power of community, and it is only the beginning,” in a statement to The Daily. “Tenants, landlords, neighbors, homeowners and pro-affordable housing organizations showed up and gave public comments, called and sent letters on multiple occasions to get this urgently passed.” 

However, Beauvoir added that the city still needs a “package” of renter protections in order to fully protect Palo Alto tenants from evictions.  And while the law expands some protections for current renters in the city, for former renters, such as Samara Meir-Levi, the damage has already been done.

On an overcast November day, Meir-Levi’s three-year-old daughter raced past her, running up the steps to the front door of their one-bedroom Palo Alto apartment. Her daughter’s tiny finger pointed to a flat, white envelope on the stoop.

“Look, mail. Is it for me?” Meir-Levi’s daughter asked.

“Nope. It’s for me,” Meir-Levi answered, with worry lines etched into her face as she bent over to pick up the eviction letter she had been dreading.

Despite never missing a rent payment, Meir-Levi and the other tenants of 4180/4190 Byron St. received “no-fault” eviction notices due to a scheduled remodeling of the building, according to Meir-Levi. After spending five months searching for a quality preschool she could afford in Palo Alto, she received her voluntary notice-to-vacate three hours after signing paperwork for the Palo Alto Community Child Care’s preschool.

Under the law in place at the time, her landlord only had to provide one month’s rent in relocation assistance to tenants, which equated to around $2,500. The building remodeling, however, lasted longer than 30 days, according to Meir-Levi, stripping her and other tenants of the opportunity to move back into their apartments before they went on the market.

“Taking someone’s safe, affordable housing away, when they’ve done nothing wrong, should not be this easy,” Meir-Levi said. “There should be protections in place to ensure that families who are forced out of their homes, through no fault of their own, can land on their feet.”

Mere days before Meir-Levi received the eviction notice, members of the Palo Alto Renters’ Association, a grassroots tenant advocacy group, advocated for the approval of renter protections presented to the Palo Alto City Council by city staff members during a Nov. 8 City Council meeting.

The City Council, however, said that the protections were not ready for a final vote and sent them back to the development phase for more research during their Nov. 29 meeting. The proposals lacked the detail and data necessary, particularly in terms of cost and expected benefits, to be approved by the Council, according to Mayor Tom DuBois. The other council members unanimously agreed with this assessment.

An expansion of tenant relocation assistance was among the proposed protections. Had the Council adopted the protection before Meir-Levi’s eviction, she would have received $9,000 from her landlord in relocation assistance based on the size of her property.

The proposed protection involving “just cause” evictions is set to be brought back to the Council for a vote in a future meeting. Four other proposed protections will be brought back to the Policy and Services Commission for further study: protections that would close anti-rent-gouging loopholes, design and implement a rental survey, cap security deposits at one and a half times monthly rent and limit what landlords can ask about criminal history, allowing for reformed convicts to more easily find housing.

“In the time that it takes them to pass these renter protections, people are going to be evicted,” Beauvoir said in a November interview with The Daily. “In the time that it takes for them to pass the renter protections, or not pass these renter protections, people are going to be displaced from the community.”

After leaving her home in Palo Alto, Meir-Levi signed a lease on Dec. 5 for “a teeny, tiny duplex house in Mountain View,” which has many of Palo Alto’s proposed renter protections already in place, she said. Along with her move to Mountain View comes a commute to attend her synagogue and visit her parents and a new preschool for her daughter in the Los Altos School District.

The passage of the law for increased renter relocation assistance is one step in a long journey for Palo Alto tenants. The Palo Alto City Council began exploring renter protections well before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the state’s housing crisis. In 2017, Mayor Tom DuBois and City Council member Lydia Kou called for the implementation of renter protections in a colleague’s memo. Since then, years of research, including talks with dozens of landlords and tenants, have shaped the proposed renter protections, according to the memo. 

Many tenants, including Palo Alto Renters’ Association co-founder and Steering Committee member Angie Evans, are frustrated by this long process that has included few legislative victories. Evans referred to the pace of the process as “disappointing” in a December interview, pointing out that as weeks go by, more and more renters are forced out of their community.

The Palo Alto Renters’ Association hopes its work can speed up the process. Over the past several years, the group has met with City Council members to discuss renters’ needs and how they would benefit from tenant protections, according to Evans.

The advocacy group has also surveyed renters to better understand their situation. The group started with eight members in 2019 and has since grown membership to 256 people, 123 of whom are low-income, according to Evans. Evans added, however, that its core mission — to get renters a seat at the table — has not changed.

Despite their attempts to organize and advocate for renters, several of the founding members were unable to afford to stay in Palo Alto. Evans hopes that by getting renter protections passed, future evicted tenants could stay in the community.

Not all are in favor of the proposed protections, however. The California Apartment Association (CAA), a landlord advocacy group, argued against the protections at a Nov. 8 City Council meeting.

One landlord, Keith Slipper, called the proposals a “socialist trojan horse,” fearing that the protections would set a precedent for what he believes to be unnecessary and economically detrimental government intervention. Another landlord, Eileen Kim, shared concerns that added protections would disincentivize new affordable housing development in the area — a sentiment echoed by the CAA in a written statement to The Daily.

The CAA contended that the problem of housing affordability comes from a lack of supply, and implementing these proposals would further increase rents as operation costs increase, according to the statement. “CAA calls upon the council to prioritize increasing the supply of housing above all else,” the group wrote.

In a January interview with The Daily, City Councilman Greg Tanaka expressed concerns about the increased rental costs that would result if the protections go into effect. Tanaka was the only dissenting vote against the expansion of tenant relocation assistance.

“I think what we should do is, we want to make [renting] more affordable and not less affordable, because it’s already really expensive for folks,” Tanaka said.

Yet these concerns may be unfounded, according to Partnership for the Bay’s Future Fellow at City of Palo Alto Lauren Bigelow.  Bigelow, the lead developer of the proposed renter protections, pointed to a 2021 study conducted by ECONorthwest and UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project and Center for Community Innovation during the November City Council meeting. The study found that anti-rent gouging policies, like the ones presented to the city council, have “limited or no impact on the feasibility of new housing development,” Bigelow said.

Despite the pushback from landlords, Beauvoir sees a changing sentiment among his community and is hopeful that the Palo Alto Renters’ Association will be able to pass the rest of the proposed protections.

“The policies and budgets we pass as a city are a statement of our values as a community, and I think the policies and budgets of this city for many years have said we do not value tenants like we value owners,” Beauvoir wrote. “However, I think passing these emergency and lasting ordinances for Renter Relocation Assistance says that the city is starting to recognize that tenants as an essential part of this community.”

This article has been updated to include a statement from the Palo Alto Renters’ Association on the City Council’s recent decision to expand tenant relocation assistance. 

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