Palo Alto tenants who face eviction could be eligible for relocation assistance from their landlords thanks to a law that the City Council adopted on Monday night.
By a 5-1 vote, with Greg Tanaka dissenting and Greer Stone recusing himself, the council expanded a law that it had adopted in 2018 in response to the evictions from President Hotel, a 75-unit apartment building that is being converted into a hotel. The existing policy entitles tenants to receive payments ranging from $7,000 for a studio to $17,000 for an apartment with three or more bedrooms.
That policy, however, only applied to buildings with 50 or more apartments. The law that the council passed Monday broadens the policy to include all buildings with 10 or more apartments, a change that more than doubles the number of apartments citywide that fall under the program.
According to the American Community Survey, about 1,228 apartments in Palo Alto are in buildings with between 10 units and 19 units. Another 1,579 apartments are in buildings with between 20 and 49 units. Together, these two categories make up nearly a quarter of the city's total stock of rental housing.
Meanwhile, buildings with 50 or more units have a total of 2,576 units between them, or 21.9% of the city's rental stock.
Supporters of tenant rights, including the nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home and the local group Palo Alto Renters' Association, cheered the move as a positive step to supporting renters, who make up about 45% of the city's population.
"We see more and more people getting evicted through no fault of their own," said Christian Beauvoir, a member of the Palo Alto Renters' Association. "You have people who've been living in Palo Alto for 35 years. We have large management companies — people who own a lot of buildings coming in and buying this real estate because they know it can be profitable and they're displacing large parts of our community, putting out six people at a time, 10 people at a time or more."
One area where residents have reported evictions is Layne Court, a small cul-de-sac with four residential properties just off on Middlefield Road in the Midtown neighborhood. The properties are owned by the real estate company Spieker Companies. Tenants in several of these units are now undergoing eviction proceedings, though the city could not say how many units this is affecting.
Stone lives on Layne Court and was advised by the city attorney to recuse from the Monday discussion. The recusal, he told this news organization, was based on "potential legal conflict and appearance of conflict."
Layne Court is hardly the only property in Palo Alto where evictions are occurring, Beauvoir said. His association has seen a steady uptick in recent months in residents facing eviction and seeking assistance.
"Eviction moratorium has been over for a few months — and we've had residents of multiple buildings reach out to us because the whole building is getting evicted, or to get help for navigating the process associated with evictions," Beauvoir told this news organization.
In some cases, landlords are putting up voluntary notices to terminate or relocate on tenants' doors, which advise them to vacate the building by a set deadline. It's easy for a tenant who is not an attorney to assume that they are being evicted, Beauvoir said.
Last month, his organization was assisting Mohamed Chakmakchi, a sixth grade teacher at Greene Middle School who signed a lease in December 2020 and was told 10 months later that the lease would not be renewed, with no further explanation. According to the Palo Alto Renters' Association, the landlord circumvented state law by maintaining at first that they are looking to renovate the property and then asserting that they are planning to move the unit off the market.
"The landlord got a lawyer and they began to find one excuse after another until they found one that stuck," Beauvoir said in an interview.
The association began raising funds for Chakmachi by launching a GoFundMe page on Jan. 23. Within a week, 229 people had donated a total of $22,201 to help Chakmachi, who teaches drama and Spanish immersion, according to the page.
"We know the pandemic has destroyed people's savings," Beauvoir said. "People are struggling."
While the council hopes the new law will help tenants facing displacement, members acknowledged that enforcing the new rules would be a challenge. Mayor Pat Burt, who supported the change, noted that many landlords will look for ways to get around the city's renter protection laws. In the case of Layne Court, the landlord appears to be flouting local rules about what constitutes a remodel, Burt said.
Despite this possibility, most council members agreed that the new law merits support. Vice Mayor Lydia Kou suggested going even further and setting the threshold for triggering relocation assistance at five units, though her colleagues opposed the idea because it would impact too many small landlords.
But while the new policy aims to protect tenants, not everyone was cheering the change. Kevin Guibara, director of real estate company Millennium Flats, which owns numerous apartment buildings in Palo Alto, argued in a letter to the council that the types of renter protections that the council is contemplating are "damaging the local economy and ultimately create an environment where lower income residents are not able to earn their income, but become reliant on more government subsidies."
"The housing market is over regulated which is why there is not enough housing," Guibara wrote. "Please do not continue to make the problem worse by passing more rules."
During the Planning and Transportation Commission's discussion last week, Commissioner Bart Hechtman suggested that the move might encourage landlords to raise rents in anticipation of having to pay relocation assistance. Council member Greg Tanaka voiced a similar concern Monday. Landlords, he said, already have to bear the costs of mortgages and building maintenance and the new policy will further burden them.
"I think what's going to happen is this is going to essentially increase the rent for people," Tanaka said. "They're going to do it because they have no choice. And if they can't, they'll perhaps even lose money on the property, which will be a tough situation."
His colleagues, however, agreed that the benefit to tenants would outweigh the burden on landlords.
"I don't want to see the instability, especially with families, young children and seniors, who are also affected by all of this," Kou said.
The council's action is the first in what promises to be a series of reforms aimed to address tenant protections. Later this year, council members plan to consider policies that would limit how much landlords are allowed to charge for security deposits and that would prohibit rent gouging.
The city is also preparing to create a city registry of rental properties, a broad survey that will help guide it through future policies related to tenant protections.