The Palo Alto City Council signaled on Monday that it plans to revisit and possibly revise a newly adopted law that limits relocation assistance for evicted tenants to those making above the area median income.
The issue of relocation assistance has become urgent in recent months for residents of President Hotel, who are facing eviction by Nov. 12 as part of the new property owner's plan to convert the apartment building into a hotel. To address the issue, the council passed on Aug. 27 an "urgency" ordinance requiring landlords to pay between $7,000 and $17,000 to each unit in relocation assistance, depending on unit size.
The urgency ordinance, which required support from seven of eight council members to pass, was ultimately limited to those making about the area median income, which means those making about $90,000 or more would not qualify. That restriction was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff and adopted despite opposition from the council majority, which wanted protections to apply more expansively. Given that the ordinance requires seven votes and that Councilman Greg Tanaka has opposed every proposal dealing with renter assistance, Scharff's vote was necessary to get anything passed on an urgency basis.
The council also passed on Aug. 27 an almost identical ordinance on a permanent basis. Unlike the urgency ordinance, this one would require a simple majority to modify. On Monday night, instead of adopting the permanent ordinance on a "second reading" (a typically routine procedure), the council agreed to hold a fresh hearing on it on Sept. 17 and potentially revisit the issue of income eligibility, or "means restriction."
Five council members --Tom DuBois, Adrian Fine, Karen Holman, Lydia Kou, and Cory Wolbach -- and nearly every member of the public who spoke on this item on Monday urged the council to do so that very evening. But Mayor Liz Kniss and Scharff, citing a busy agenda, opted to delay the hearing to a future date. Scharff said that because the emergency ordinance remains in effect, the city can take more time on amending the permanent one.
"If we wait two or three weeks, does it really matter?" Scharff asked.
For those on the other side of the debate, the answer was yes. Former Mayor Pat Burt described the tactic by Kniss and Scharff to delay the changes to the "means restriction" issue as "catch and kill" legislation. By delaying the vote, the council will effectively keep President Hotel residents from benefiting from a potentially more expansive proposal with either looser income requirements or none at all.
A group of residents from President Hotel also asked the council to take up the item Monday night. Iqbal Serang said some of his fellow tenants have no place to go after eviction and will soon be homeless. Chris Kellogg asked the council to stop "kicking the can down the road" and noted that the city's recently approved contract with its new city manager, Ed Shikada, includes a monthly $4,000 housing allowance, in addition to a $356,000 base salary.
"You guys clearly agree it's expensive to live here. ... But somehow you create a means test for someone who earns $91,000 to get nothing," Kellogg said.
Kou concurred and said that the longer the council waits, the higher the anxieties will be for tenants. The situation, she said, is urgent.
Kniss, who as mayor has the purview over agenda, rejected requests from the council majority and moved to hold a hearing at a future meeting. The council is now scheduled to take it up on Sept. 17.