By Will Carruthers
The Petaluma City Council on Monday, May 2, unanimously selected passing stronger protections for renters as one of the council’s legislative priorities for the next few years.
Before the council meeting, tenant advocacy groups, including the North Bay Organizing Project, Sonoma County Tenants Union and other groups, held a rally outside of city hall to share the stories about the experiences of two local renters.
Aura Aguilar, a Petaluma renter and Sonoma County Tenants Union board member, said that she and her husband, a Petaluma native, are struggling to afford a “tiny granny unit that we are quickly outgrowing” and afraid that they could be kicked out with little notice.
“It is scary to think we can easily be evicted from our home. In a city that can be so progressive—like when we became the first in the U.S. to ban future gas station construction—I don’t understand how we can be so unsafe for renters and so far behind in tenant protections,” Aguilar said.
According to a Petaluma staff presentation from last May, the median income of a family in Petaluma is $65,396, significantly lower than the $88,160 income needed to comfortably afford rent. Homeowners are similarly burdened and costs have continued to increase. Rents in Petaluma reportedly increased by 14.5% between January 2021 and January 2022.
In a statement released before the May 2 meeting, Margaret DeMatteo, a housing policy attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, also urged the council to pass local protections to strengthen an existing state law.
“The statewide Tenant Protection Act falls short for Petaluma tenants. It is a law with no teeth,” DeMatteo said. “The act exempts a multitude of tenancy situations, and tenants would have to hire an attorney to sue their landlord if they believe their rights are being violated. Passing a just cause ordinance that keeps folks housed and protected is in line with Petaluma’s heart.”
County eviction protections passed during the pandemic are expected to expire in the coming months.
The eviction protections the advocates are suggesting would require a landlord to prove they have a “just cause” to evict a tenant. Reasons for eviction allowed under just cause ordinance usually include non-payment of rent, violation of lease terms, creation of a nuisance and an owner’s intent to occupy a rental unit. The city council will also consider local restrictions on the Ellis Act, a state law which allows landlords to evict tenants if they decide to take a unit off the market. Tenant advocates have long argued that the Ellis Act serves as a loophole for landlords who want to kick out a tenant and then increase the rent for the next tenant.
Last June, the Petaluma City Council voted to approve additional renter protections by this June. However, it appears unlikely the council will accomplish that goal. In a report to the council, city attorney Eric Danly said staff would need to study the potential impacts of the suggested policies, a process that he said could stretch into the next two years. Speakers during public comment urged faster implementation, and council members seemed to understand the sense of urgency.
“I am very aware of what I heard from the people that spoke here that time is of the essence. So, if there are parts that can be moved forward, I don’t need to see it all as one piece,” said Mayor Teresa Barrett, urging staff to explore ways to bring some of the suggested protections back one at a time.