Menlo Park is in the process of developing an ordinance that, if passed, could require landlords who evict tenants without cause or impose rent increases over a certain level to give cash to those displaced.
While the city's Housing Commission discussed the terms of such a potential ordinance on Aug. 8, it left some matters still unresolved. The plan is to conduct public outreach before the matter is brought to the City Council, according to Clay Curtin, interim housing and economic development manager.
An early draft of the ordinance shows could be far-reaching in terms of the people it could impact. Tenants would be eligible to receive the cash equivalent of three, and in some cases, four months' market-rate rent from their landlords if they are evicted for a reason other than failing to pay rent, breaching a rental agreement or being a nuisance, or if they are vacating temporarily to allow for needed repairs. They would also be eligible for assistance if they are presented with any rent increase greater than the annual increase in the regional consumer price index (an indicator of natural increases in living costs) plus 5 percent, over the course of a year.
The landlord would then have to give a cash payment of three times whatever is considered the current Menlo Park market rate rent for the unit, or three times the tenant's rent, whichever is more, and a 60-day subscription to a rental agency service.
The commission also supports requiring the landlord to give an additional month's rent to displaced households that have at least one person who is over 62 years old, under 18, or disabled.
During the course of the Housing Commission's discussion, some commissioners said they favor broadening the terms of who would be eligible for assistance.
While the draft policy indicates that a tenant would have had to live in the same place for 36 months to be eligible for relocation assistance, several commissioners said they favor having no residency duration requirements.
The potential ordinance might apply more broadly than just to cash-strapped households. Housing Commissioner Karen Grove said she wants the ordinance to apply to any household earning less than one and a half or two times the area median income.
According to a staff report, the housing commissioners support having the ordinance apply to all rental units throughout the city, while staff recommends limiting the ordinance to target only rental properties of four or more units. If the commission sticks with its recommendation, staff suggest excluding housing already considered "affordable" through an agreement, secondary dwelling units, or households that rent a room to a third party.
Three people who introduced themselves as part of the Redwood Landing Tenants Union spoke in favor of the potential ordinance, in addition to further legislative protections for renters. Sandra Zamora and Lilian Flores, renters at newly acquired apartments on Pierce Road in Belle Haven, said their rents were recently increased by $800 a month. Zamora said she is now paying the higher cost.
Flores said she considers herself lucky because she and her fiance were able to negotiate ending a contract that would otherwise have carried a roughly $5,000 penalty when they discovered, after agreeing to the new rent, that they couldn't afford it. The couple moved out of the apartment and are now sharing a bedroom in someone else's home, she said.
She added that they would not be able to save up for a wedding or pay their debts if they kept paying rent at that level.
Luis Carriel, a lifelong Menlo Park resident who said he lives in a nearby apartment purchased by the same owners, told The Almanac that under the new owners, rent at his two-bedroom apartment was doubled to $2,600 from $1,300, even while the new landlord stopped paying for utilities.
He said he negotiated for a $100 deduction in the rent increase to $2,500 a month, partly because he has been a tenant there for about 12 years.
Evan and Carol Collins, local landlords, expressed concerns about a provision that would require even landlords who rent to tenants at below market rate to provide tenants relocation assistance at market rate levels.
Rhovy Lyn Antonio, vice president of public affairs at the California Apartment Association, told the commission that while the association does not oppose a relocation assistance program, she believes that the commission's approach had deviated from the direction the City Council initially gave at a study session it held in January 2017. She said that the program should apply only to housing being sold or renovated, and opposed the inclusion of rent increases of 5 percent plus increases in the consumer price index as a trigger for the ordinance.
"That, to us, is a form of rent control," she said, adding that she hoped there would be more community outreach with local rental property owners.
Another question is how the city would realistically implement such a policy. According to Clay Curtin, interim housing and economic development manager, he and a provisional employee, Mike Noce, represent the city's entire housing department. Other cities have more robust groups and staff to help enact and enforce housing policy, such as rent stabilization boards.
Also, the city isn't in the practice of researching and maintaining information on current market-rate rents in the city or calculating what percentage of income a tenant spends on rent.
Curtin said that the legal language in the draft ordinance is drawn from several local cities that have tenant relocation assistance ordinance policies, such as Redwood City, Mountain View and San Leandro.
Redwood City passed a tenant relocation assistance ordinance in March, which will take effect in January. That policy applies only to apartment buildings of five or more units in situations where housing is being permanently taken off the rental market. To qualify, a tenant must have lived in the apartment for a year or more and earn no more than 80 percent of the area median income.
For households that qualify, a landlord would have to provide the cash equivalent of three months' rent, or four for households with a senior, child or person who is disabled; a refund on the tenant's security deposit; a 60-day subscription to a rental agency service; and an administrative fee.
Mountain View updated its policy in May. Mountain View now requires landlords to provide tenant relocation assistance to lease-compliant households that earn 120 percent or less than the area's median income, in the form of a full refund of a tenant’s security deposit, a 60-day subscription to a rental agency, the cash equivalent of three months' median market-rate rent for a similarly sized apartment, and an additional $3,000 for households with at least one person over 62 years of age, under 18, or disabled.
The city plans to begin public outreach on the potential ordinance after a revised draft is reviewed by a Housing Commission subcommittee.