The city of Menlo Park needs to take action now to deal with a housing crisis that is driving low- to moderate-income families out of the city. That's the message to the city from attorneys with Community Legal Services, a nonprofit agency based in East Palo Alto that provides free and low-cost legal services to low-income residents.
With rents rising nearly 50 percent over the last four years in San Mateo County, the attorneys urged swift action, including an emergency moratorium on both rent increases and tenant evictions without cause.
In an April 11 memo to the city, they recommend that the city develop policies for rent stabilization and just-cause eviction, create a funding mechanism to support renters in times of emergency, and develop affordable rent preferences for local tenants.
They also call for more "below market rate" housing including 30 to 40 percent of new housing in the M-2 light industrial area east of U.S. 101 and more incentives for developers to build affordable housing.
Attorney Keith Ogden said in an interview that he and his colleagues (Jason Tarricone and Daniel Saver) wanted to make the recommendations in advance of a number of meetings coming up in Menlo Park that could affect housing policy.
He said he hopes it is a "launching pad for continuing the dialogue from the community's perspective."
In an interview with the Almanac, Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline said the memo contained some great ideas, a few of which, he said, "we can probably take on." Others, he said, were "deeply political," "not insignificant," or would take a "heck of a lot of time" to implement.
In general, he said, he'd support a short-term moratorium on no-cause evictions to give the city "time to think" about housing policies. Such a moratorium would need a clear deadline, he said.
He was more cautious about other proposals, such as increasing the percentage of new housing that developers must build at an "affordable" rate, or preventing rent increases above a certain amount or percent.
Increasing population density anywhere in Menlo Park can be highly controversial and complex, and such a policy could pose implementation challenges, he said. Meanwhile, rent stabilization policies, he said, pose their own logistical challenges.
He said he wants to see how other cities are dealing with housing issues, and hopes broader countywide or regional agencies can also implement their own policies that could apply to Menlo Park.
The city, he said, should be more proactive and quick to react to the regional housing crisis. "The economics are moving so fast that it's a little intimidating," he said.
Menlo Park and its Belle Haven neighborhood, he said, have a "rich, diverse history we need to preserve."
The City Council plans to hold a joint study session on housing issues with the city's Housing Commission on May 3.
Real estate speculation affecting rentals is on the rise countywide, the attorneys said in the memo. Investors buy apartment buildings at inflated prices, raising rents to recoup their costs, driving out existing tenants. Then the investors renovate the buildings to attract more affluent tenants.
Commonly, the attorneys say, these building acquisitions come with no-cause, 60-day eviction notices to all or most of the building's tenants, or include building-wide rent increases of hundreds or thousands of dollars per month.
According to University of California, Berkeley, researchers on urban displacement, the attorneys say, "it is not too late for strong affordable housing policies and anti-displacement measures" to help stabilize housing conditions for lower-income families.
Belle Haven data
The memo provides data on housing conditions in Belle Haven, where 57 percent of residents rent their housing. The median annual household income there (about $57,000) is about 56 percent of the county's median ($101,000).
The majority of renter households in Belle Haven who earn under $75,000 are paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent. For many, that proportion hovers at more than 50 percent of income.
The attorneys recommended that Menlo Park immediately pass an emergency moratorium on "exorbitant rent increase and no-cause evictions."
The city should also have a program that grants rent funding to people who are at immediate risk of losing their permanent housing in Menlo Park, the memo says. Forgivable loans or grants based on short-term need, such as in the case of a sudden, unexpected medical, auto or other expense, could help give burdened renters more stability in times of emergency.
Menlo Park should devise a set of rent stabilization and just-cause tenant eviction policies that fit the needs of the city, including capping rent increases to parallel the inflation rate. Landlords should be prohibited from arbitrarily evicting a tenant, but should still be allowed to evict tenants who fail to pay rent, breach the lease, or cause other problems, they say.
The city could set provisions for when market conditions change and the programs were determined to no longer be necessary.
San Francisco recently approved a residential development that would require 40 percent of its units to be affordable, and the city of Concord has committed to making 25 percent of its residential development "affordable," the attorneys note.
New affordable units should be integrated into market-rate housing developments to prevent geographic separation by income level, and to ensure that lower-income residents can remain housed in the same area as they increase their income over time, the memo says.
In addition, they recommend that the city implement a policy called "right to purchase," that would allow tenants the first chance to buy their apartment building whenever it goes up for sale, thereby keeping it out of the speculative market and allowing it to be community-controlled.
The attorneys concluded their memo by saying: "If Menlo Park gets it right, ConnectMenlo Plan (the city's review of its general plan) can be an example of how to pursue development without displacement, ensuring that the benefits of future growth will be shared with both the existing residents who made the city what it is today, as well as with the diverse set of new residents who will continue to make Menlo Park a vibrant and complete community."
Go to tinyurl.com/rent321 to see the memo.