Sweeping protections for Alameda renters coming soon

Alameda rental housing advocates at a meeting in May.

An Alameda City Council, buoyed by a November election that built upon its progressive majority while trouncing a landlords-backed ballot initiative, moved forward Tuesday night with a menu of sweeping new protections coming soon for struggling Alameda renters.

The council directed its staff to prepare a just-cause ordinance for possible approval next month, a regulation long sought by local housing activists. In addition, they voiced strong support for a cap on annual rent increases, while approving a resolution to enact immediate restrictions on the use of the Ellis Act, a state law often used by landlords to evict entire buildings in order to exit the rental housing market.

The deliberate move by the council for strengthening its legislative protections for Alameda renters may go further. Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilmember Malia Vella both advocated for dismantling the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC), an appointed body of renters, landlords, and homeowners, who are tasked with mediating disputes between tenants and property owners, although their decisions are non-binding.

A direction to staff was also made to dust off a pending referral first offered two years ago to place regulations on AirBNB rentals in Alameda. The short-term rental business has been blamed for pulling rental units off the market in Alameda.

“I think this is Alameda-style rent control,” said Councilmember Jim Oddie. “Nothing against Berkeley, but I think it’s something that we came up with and I think it’s better.”

The almost breathtaking number of significant rental housing protections now on the cusp of approval by the Alameda City Council is sure to rile local landlords. In the past, Alameda landlords have fought vigorously  to maintain the status quo, spending millions since 2016 in ballot initiatives intended to thwart a push by tenants’ groups to enact various forms of rent control in Alameda. However, only a few landlords attended Tuesday’s early starting meeting on the issue.

Most, however, do not expect landlords to go silent on the issue for much longer. The Rent Stabilization Ordinance the Alameda City Council is likely to amend in coming months was first approved in March 2016. Landlords leveled a clear defeat against a ballot measure backed by tenants later that year to enact far stronger restrictions on rent increases. But when the council, in early 2017, approved just-cause protections for renters, essentially requiring landlords to give a reason for evicting a tenant, landlords were greatly angered.

Quickly, they mounted a successful petition drive to repeal the action at the ballot box. But at the behest of the Alameda Renters Coalition, who feared facing another costly ballot measure campaign, the council repealed the just-cause amendment on their own. Another ballot measure backed by landlords last fall attempted to lock-in the original Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which they believed is a far more palatable set of regulations, as a Charter amendment. That measure performed miserably at the polls, gaining support from just under 40 percent of Alameda voters.

A new council that now features four of five solidly progressive votes took little time to register support for a just-cause ordinance Tuesday night, which Ashcraft, perhaps inadvertently, called “referendum-proof.”

Councilmember John Knox White, who was elected last November, urged for expediency when it comes to protecting renters. Noting evictions without cause are on the rise in Alameda, he said, “I would like just-cause to come back as soon as humanely possible.”

Debbie Potter, the city’s community development director, said a just-cause ordinance will be ready for the second meeting in May. The menu of additional rent protections may follow in early June, she told the council.

When Councilmember Tony Daysog questioned changes to the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, labeling it “Berkeley-style rent control,” a phrase often used in tandem with Oakland (both city have rent control), Councilmember Jim Oddie did not shy away from the term.

“I think this is Alameda-style rent control,” said Oddie. “Nothing against Berkeley, but I think it’s something that we came up with and I think it’s better.”

The exchange, if nothing else, revealed the confidence progressives and advocates for renters, are feeling in Alameda at this moment.

A rent cap also received support from the council, although a specific figure was not given. A city staff report, though, offered a range based on between 65 percent to 100 percent of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The most recent CPI for the Bay Area is 3.5 percent. Alameda’s current rent ordinance allows landlords to raise annual rents by up to 5 percent. Any percentage above 5 percent requires landlords petition the RRAC.

IMG_0177

But the future of the RRAC is also in doubt. Ashcraft expressed shock that during some RRAC hearings renters are being asked to disclose specific personal and financial information in a public setting. For example, how much money they receive each month in Social Security benefits. Ashcraft added, the money the city spends on the RRAC would be better used for other areas of the rental housing issue.

“The RRAC is a cost-ineffective way of doing things,” said Vella. “In my opinion, let’s get rid of the RRAC,”

A sunset clause on the current Rent Stabilization Ordinance was also unanimously removed by the council. Daysog backed the item, saying his vote represents support for the intent of the original ordinance, not the proposed amendments likely forthcoming. “I believe the hard data shows that Ordinance 3148 is working,” said Daysog, using the Rent Stabilization Ordinance’s numerical title. “What we have in place is really working in term of what got us here and excessive rent increases.”

An estimated 12 percent of all no-cause evictions in Alameda were issued by way of the Ellis Act. The council determined new regulations may curb the use of the state law that is often abused by property owners in order to clear out entire buildings of long-time tenants. Under the resolution approved Tuesday night, property owners who access the Ellis Act, must offer the unit back to the same tenants if they again re-rent the units within two years. If not, the property owner could be liable and the city attorney’s office could seek punitive damages against the landlord.

“I don’t like to make predictions,” said Daysog, warning of the unintended consequences of the council supporting the package of rent restrictions and its effect on so-called “Mom and Pop” property owners.  “I really wonder about single-family rentals and duplexes,” said Daysog. “People are going to do calculations and just get out of it. You’re incentivizing them to get out.”

 

Advertisements