.Petaluma Council strengthens eviction protections with split vote

The Petaluma City Council last week approved additional protections for renters in the face of opposition from property owners.

Petaluma’s new rules, known as the Residential Tenancy Protections, will extend “Just Cause” protections to a far broader array of rental properties than a current state law governing evictions, including covering tenants in single family homes.  

The ordinance also places new restrictions on evictions under the Ellis Act, a state law which allows landlords to evict tenants when they decide to take a rental property off the market. Tenant advocates have long argued that some bad-actor landlords use the Ellis Act to kick out a tenant and then quickly place a unit back on the market asking for a higher rent. Petaluma’s new ordinance would require property owners to give tenants at least 120-days’ notice for Ellis Act evictions.

However, the protections may not last for long, at least in their current form. Due to the concerns that the city did not conduct adequate outreach, the council agreed to make the ordinance sunset on March 1, 2023. Council members said the date will give the city time to speak to more stakeholders and gather data about evictions. However, the addition will also make the new tenant protections a debate topic in the city’s Nov. 8 elections for a new mayor and council members. 

Four candidates, including two current council members, are running for at-large mayor. Eight candidates are running for three council positions in the city’s first district-based election.

The new council members and mayor will be appointed in January, meaning that the new tenant protections could be significantly changed by the new council next year.

The Sept. 12 vote concluded a multi-year push by tenant advocates. In May, the council added strengthening tenant protections to its list of legislative priorities. On Aug. 1, the council passed the protections, drafted by city staff, with a 4-2 vote. Council members Mike Healy and Dave King dissented, and council member Kevin McDonnell recused himself because he rents a property to a family member. 

The council passed the legislation on second reading with the same vote split at its Monday, Sept. 12 meeting. The same night, the council extended Sonoma County’s emergency COVID-era eviction protections for Petaluma residents until the new protections go into effect. The county is expected to allow the COVID eviction protections to expire on Sept. 30.

Supporters of the added protections, led by the North Bay Organizing Project, Sonoma County Tenants Union and Legal Aid of Sonoma County, celebrated the victory in a press release after the vote.

“Passage of local tenant protections is truly historic in Sonoma County. We have been operating under the antiquated belief that the market will self-correct, while housing costs far exceed inflation, housing discrimination has reached endemic levels and we have endured a multi-year housing and homelessness crisis,” Margaret DeMatteo, Legal Aid’s housing policy attorney, said in the statement.

Tenants who spoke at the meetings shared stories of their struggles to find and hold on to affordable housing in Petaluma.

In a letter to the council, Petaluma tenant Joseph Alvarez wrote that he had faced an illegal 17% increase in rent when his lease came up for renewal at the beginning of the year.

“Please help those who can’t help themselves. I’m asking you as a Man who just wants the best for his kids and there (sic) future,” Alvarez wrote.

Meanwhile, in letters and comments at council meetings, local landlords and property managers raised concerns about the policy’s possible economic impacts and invoked the threat of possible legal challenges.

Critics of the Petaluma ordinance also argued that existing statewide tenant protections are adequate. In 2019, state lawmakers passed the Tenant Protection Act (TPA), which, among other things, prevents owners of certain kinds of rental properties from increasing existing tenants’ rents more than 10% per year. 

“Our members reject the notion that the city of Petaluma needs to implement a local ‘Just Cause’ [ordinance] when AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, already exists statewide, and especially when the city does not have the data to justify why it wants to enact a stricter law,” Rhovy Lyn Antonio, a vice president with the California Apartment Association, a statewide industry group, said at the Aug. 1 meeting.

But supporters of increased protections pointed out problems with state regulations. The TPA exempts many units, including any rental building constructed in the past 15 years; single family homes and condos owned by non-corporate landlords; and units with on-site landlords.

The North Bay Business Journal reported in February that rents increased 14.5% in Petaluma in 2021, above the 10% maximum allowed for units covered by the TPA. Asked about this discrepancy at the council’s Aug. 1 meeting, Dylan Brady, an assistant city attorney, said that the increase was probably due to increases on units not covered by the TPA—including single family homes—and some landlords illegally raising rents. 

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. According to city data, 81% of Petaluma low-income residents are spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

Although Petaluma’s “Just Cause” legislation is a first for Sonoma County, rent increases have led other California cities and counties to pass stricter rent control and tenant protections this year. 

On Aug. 28, the Los Angeles Times reported that cities around the state, including Antioch, Bell Gardens and Santa Ana, have passed local rent control ordinances which restrict rent increases more than the current state regulations. In Marin County, tenant advocates pushed Fairfax and San Anselmo to pass additional local tenant protections earlier this year.

Many commenters raised concerns about the process Petaluma followed in writing and introducing the legislation, which was drafted by staff and published online days before the council’s Aug. 1 meeting. A few council members on both sides of the vote acknowledged that issue. 

At the Sept. 12 meeting, council member Brian Barnacle said, “I don’t think this is a particularly good piece of legislation. What I’m really excited about with this is [that we’re] starting to track things… I want better data, and we’re going to start getting better data because we’re putting this into place.” 

Barnacle added that he wants to hear from tenants and landlords in the coming months to inform the council’s approach to the legislation when they revisit it next year.

At the same meeting, Mayor Teressa Barrett, who supported the protections and is retiring from office at the end of the year, said, “I know that this is not the end, unfortunately. But I hope as it goes forward, there will be more communication [from both sides].”

Get more information about Petaluma’s new tenant protections at www.cityofpetaluma.org/tenant-protections-ordinance.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.

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