Hundreds beseech East Palo Alto council to end evictions

City Council votes to look at changing its ordinance, create housing task force

Facing a chamber overflowing with hundreds of residents Tuesday night, the East Palo Alto City Council addressed how the city could best turn the tide of recent evictions from red-tagged and illegal dwellings while responsibly keeping its residents safe and enforcing the city's laws.

Facing a chamber overflowing with hundreds of residents Tuesday night, the East Palo Alto City Council addressed how the city could best turn the tide of recent evictions from red-tagged and illegal dwellings while responsibly keeping its residents safe and enforcing the city's laws.

City leaders listened to a litany of concerns from residents, landlords and housing advocates, who outlined the impact of the recent ramp-up of code enforcement, which has forced about 50 people out of their homes, according to the city's own estimates.

The city has red-tagged 53 structures deemed hazardous, according to a staff report.

In the end, the council voted unanimously to direct staff to form a community task force to find solutions to the problem. The council also unanimously directed staff to look into changing the city's current ordinance, which requires evictions after a 10-day notice for a dangerous or illegal structure. The city could extend the notice to 30 days.

East Palo Alto has long been troubled by illegal second-dwelling units on properties and overcrowding in single-family homes that have led to, in some instances, mountains of trash and problems with parking and vermin. Residents have died after illegally constructed structures caught fire.

The city began stepping up enforcement of its building and safety codes earlier this year after it hired additional code-enforcement officers to respond to complaints from citizens. But the efforts have had an unintended consequence on evicted families, who have had to split up, residents said.

Advocates presented a document Tuesday addressing the issue and outlining possible long-term solutions. The report -- which was created by St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Faith Missionary Baptist Church, Tokaikolo Church, Project Sentinel and Faith in Action Bay Area -- recommended the city consider an immediate two-year moratorium on red-tagging any unit other than those posing a life-threatening hazard. Illegal dwellings would be let stand and an amnesty program would be instituted with reduced fees, which would allow property owners to upgrade their units and comply with regular inspections. A task force would help come up with a reduced-fee schedule.

The report also strongly recommended the city develop an education program for landlords and tenants so they will understand the codes and construction standards. The instructions could be in a handbook translated into multiple languages, which residents speak, including English, Spanish, Samoan and Tongan.

Advocates asked for a 30- and 60-day notice for imminent hazards, allowing tenants to find alternate housing. The report also asked the city to define an "imminent hazard," noting that families whose dwellings have been red-tagged are not been clearly informed about the violation. The determinations appear to be arbitrarily made by the code-enforcement officer, the report alleged. The community would also like to have an independent third party present during inspections, which would include persons with planning and code-enforcement experience.

But council members said Tuesday that they find themselves impeded in large part by state and local laws, which limit their ability to take immediate emergency actions.

Councilman Carlos Romero and city staff noted that the city must enforce the state building code, which requires an abatement of the hazard within 30 days or sooner if deemed necessary for health and safety reasons. Therefore, a moratorium would not be legal. But the city could change its 10-day rule for red-tagging to 30 days, and it could seek funding to help property owners bring second-dwelling units up to code, at least minimally.

A city staff report found multiple points of agreement with the community's report, but both staff and council members expressed regret that the community's white paper wasn't received in time for staff to meld its contents with the city's.

The staff report recommends issuing a request for proposals for an organization to provide help for those who are displaced, including motel vouchers, first- and last-month rent assistance, relocation help and other services.

Many residents are not aware of their rights, including that landlords are required to provide financial assistance for relocation, staff noted. Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto provides help in compelling landlords to provide that assistance, but many residents don't know about the services.

The city could expand its affordable-housing strategy by involving other communities and seeking funding from state and federal agencies. It might also try to find ways to get an estimated 100 units available at Woodland Park Apartments to be subsidized at lower rents, staff noted.

The proposed community task force would also help identify resources in the community that could help create educational programs for landlords and tenants and identify ways to bring the community's talent pool of construction workers, plumbers and other laborers to help make many of the structures habitable. But the city also recognized that it must identify funding sources to make those options viable.

If there was any good news on Tuesday, it's that the code-enforcement effort has produced results: 81 percent of the homes that have been red-tagged have been abated or are in process of abatement, the staff report noted.

Jennifer Martinez, executive director of Faith in Action Bay Area, said the council's direction was a good start, but it doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

"I'm hearing people say that they are concerned the city isn't going to move quickly enough to avoid the immediate additional displacements. They have to move quickly," she said.


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24 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 11:10 am

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

I was at the meeting last night, and have sympathy for the many innocent victims in this housing crisis, people who are simply looking for a place to live. The failure of communities like Menlo Park and Palo Alto to create affordable housing was evident last night - many of the people at the council meeting live in EPA and work on the other side of the freeway as gardeners, house cleaners, restaurant workers, and construction.

The root of this problem are the landlords in EPA who created illegal living spaces, and failed to bring them up to code despite being given years of warning. The ten-day red tagging has only happened after landlords failed to respond to city notices, thinking that the law would never be enforced. These landlords have made thousands of dollars every month exploiting every space in their houses and backyards, resulting in unsafe, unhealthy, and deplorable living conditions. Their tenants, who were mostly unaware of the ongoing code enforcement issues, are now being displaced.

It is a sad situation all around. The city is obligated to follow state and city law, which will condemn these illegal structures due to legitimate health and safety issues. A bad housing situation will undoubtedly get worse.

13 people like this
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2016 at 11:41 am

Mark, I agree with you on almost all your points, except for blaming Menlo Park and Palo Alto for not creating affordable housing. I know that that has long been an issue for those communities, but where is the affordable housing in EPA that is safe and legal? All communities share this issue, not just the rich ones. What are the barriers to creating more affordable housing in EPA?

Another thought: Remember the post Katrina temporary housing from FEMA, where they bought lots of RV trailers and stuff and created a temporary solution while the longer-term solutions were worked on? This might solve one side of the housing issue, but it still leaves people who created the illegal and unsafe housing without an income source to help them afford their housing. There are many sides to this puzzle.

8 people like this
Posted by the balance
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 11:52 am

There used to be a balance of housing until the lower cost housing along the railroad and EPA was renovated and priced to cost 3 times it was just several years ago. The working poor were squeezed out and more laborers were brought in to complete expensive counter top, bathroom renovations, and add new carpet. These luxury units are still listed on Craig's list for rent. The school year for Stanford University has already began. That means there is an increased probability that the owners will have to take a loss for each unrented month. Cosmetic changes like marble countertops will not change the fact that a noisy train track or high traffic El Camino Real Ave. is within hearing ranging. Individuals seeking luxury accommodations notice this right away. They should have let the working poor live in low cost housing unless necessary upgrades were required. I have seen a lot of unnecessary cosmetic changes that squeezed out the poor and caused them to live in unusual conditions like in cars/RV's on the street. Where is the balance?

7 people like this
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2016 at 12:09 pm

Charles Dickens wrote "The law, in its equality, forbids both rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges." You cannot outlaw the poor, but you can outlaw the survival techniques used by the poor. We need to be more enabling to these people, who we need in our community.

7 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 1:26 pm

JustMe - it's hard to believe that you refuse to understand how much blame is to be placed on the cities surrounding us. We've long been both the by design and by default affordable housing capital of our county and the immediate vicinity. If you look to the law governing the requirements for lower cost housing, you'll see failures all over both counties. In fact, Menlo was successfully sued due to their nefarious strategies to avoid their legal responsibility. Your point about all cities, not just rich ones, share this issue is a head scratcher. We HAVE been dealing with this issue constantly, and even moreso, as much as legally possible, during this housing crisis. But the landlords of these deplorable dwellings who exploit the housing crisis are literally endangering their tenants. They're also legally responsible for relocation fees or replacement housing for their tenants!!

As to where there's affordable housing here - it's traditionally been all over our city, from apartments to duplexes to single family homes, shared housing of every kind, mobile homes and condos. But vacancy decontrol and the "free market" mean that housing prices here have also skyrocketed.

And finally - physically, we are a small city, so there's not much room to grow, unlike many other cities in the area.

6 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 1:50 pm

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

Justme - 40% of EPA housing qualifies as affordable. One thing I learned at the meeting last night is that there are 2 jobs in Palo Alto for every resident. In EPA it is .2. EPA is housing the workforce for many employers in Palo Alto, whether it is baristas, gardeners, chefs, or software engineers. I commend EPA for at least addressing this issue. But let's be clear: housing is one issue which cannot be solved by only one city government.

15 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 19, 2016 at 2:48 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

I agree that housing can not be solved by any one community BUT I would like to mention that the residents of EPA also work in Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, etc. in similar capacities. These communities should also be part of the discussion - perhaps starting a fund to subsidize some of the Woodland Park Apartments and/or help upgrade some of the sub-standard units.

9 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 3:32 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

One other note about affordable housing in EPA, to add to the excellent points that Hmmm and Mark Dinan made, relates to water. EPA currently has a development moratorium because we are out of water. This relates to history around water allocations from Hetch Hetchy that came from a time when EPA was not yet a city and therefore had little political power in these negotiations. So, we already have the vast majority of below market rate housing for all of San Mateo County and no capacity to develop any new housing at all because of our water situation. The solution to affordable housing in our area will not come from EPA; it must come from our more affluent neighbors working together and with us to address our common challenges.

9 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 3:47 pm

The truth is that the majority of people in Silicon Valley just don't care enough about this housing crisis, lower income housing and their own city's flagrant disregard of this complex issue.

Also, Woodland Park Apartments has nothing to do with any of this, does it?

Many of you are also missing this crucial point: Most cities do not have a legal mechanism in place to force a landlord to relocate or give relocation money to the displaced tenants even though it's the landlord's legal obligation to do so. Going to small claims court after the fact is little help to those who face an emergency housing situation.

8 people like this
Posted by better transportation?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 19, 2016 at 4:27 pm

I don't think we can always live exactly where we wish, or right by where we work. Meantime, there is PLENTY of space in the large city of San Jose, and if there can be improved public transportation it seems to be this would solve all the housing issues here. People cannot safely live in unsafe and illegal conditions offered by slumlords. They CAN commute like most of us have had to do at times. Its time for the Northern section of Santa Clara County to be more effectively linked to San Jose/Southern Santa Clara County. Prices are reasonable in San Jose. Otherwise, why not legislate that Beverly Hills have affordable housing?! Yes, the same problems are there: built out, highly educated, high net work city. So go nearby. it's feasible and regional government (Santa Clara County) needs to step uo on this. Oh, I forgot: all the tax $$$ must go to BART (which I have ridden about twice in my life....and which won't help anyone in EPA.)

13 people like this
Posted by Jason
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 21, 2016 at 4:59 am

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Native Palo Altan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2016 at 1:18 pm

For Pete's sake, it is not the responsibility of other cities to help out EPA! Their politicians need to fix their city. [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 21, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

@Native Palo Altan - EPA is no longer the dangerous place it was in the past. But think of the people who live there - they bus your tables, clean your house, wash your car, care for your mom in her retirement home, etc. We are a regional community - and to answer one of your questions, yes, I think we could subsidize rent for people who need help.

1 person likes this
Posted by Gentrification
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 21, 2016 at 4:05 pm

EPA has issues partly because PA has built so much office. PA has created more housing demand because companies like Palantir are grabbing up every sqft of office, and seem to have an insatiable demand. They also subsidize workers who live close by, so naturally they're driving up housing demand. That housing demand spills over to EPA where landlords can suddenly make a lot more money. PA needs to stop giving in to developers. They need to stop building office, and focus on housing. And yes, maybe that means helping EPA. EPA needs to separately put some measures in place to make it less easy for renters to be evicted. This cannot be solved by one city. We're all affected. Palantir owns Palo Alto. Apple owns Cupertino, Facebook owns Menlo Park, Google owns Mountain View. They all want to house their workers close by.....and guess who loses? The people who are actually serving the communities - the restaurant workers, the teachers, the gardeners. It's shocking and it's all cloaked in the new 'urbanism' walkable communities. Sounds great until you realize who is really paying the price. The 'millennials' (a term that really only applies to millennials with a good college degree in computer science) want to be housed at the expense of the working poor.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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