San José City Council approves historic new renter protections

Mercury News April 19, 2017

SAN JOSE —-  A day after the San José City Council narrowly approved historic new tenant protections, including a “just cause” policy requiring landlords to give a reason for ousting tenants, renters celebrated a victory they have sought for decades.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Eunice Hernandez, a community organizer at Sacred Heart Community Service. “This is something we’ve been trying to accomplish for years. Renters no longer have to live in fear — it’s going to change families’ lives.”

The approval Tuesday reflects a leftward shift on the City Council. Now dominated by progressive policymakers, the council adopted changes that a year ago weren’t even brought up because of strong opposition from landlords — and a business-oriented City Council that sided with them.

Landlords argued the policies will hurt housing development and make it hard to evict problem tenants.

“I feel extreme sadness,” said Carlos Padilla, who owns 12 units in San José. “Not for myself or property owners — I feel for the tenants. These policies may help short term, but will have a negative impact long term because it will de-incentivize people from wanting to build in San José.”

City housing officials sought to strike a balance between the two factions with an unsuccessful proposal: Offer protections only to tenants who complain about property conditions. A council majority, led by council members Raul Peralez, Donald Rocha, Sergio Jimenez and Sylvia Arenas, said the plan didn’t go far enough and that all renters should be protected.

On a 6-5 vote, the City Council approved a just-cause policy requiring landlords to cite a reason for terminating a lease and protections for renters when a landlord demolishes rent-controlled units. Peralez, Rocha, Jimenez, Arenas, Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and Councilman Tam Nguyen voted in favor.

The dissenters were Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members Chappie Jones, Lan Diep, Dev Davis and Johnny Khamis.

It’s a move advocates called historic.

“I feel outstanding gratitude to the six members of the City Council who had the courage and compassion to make this happen,” said longtime advocate Bob Brownstein, who said he’s pushed for these policies for 40 years.

Under the plan approved Tuesday, renters can be removed for 12 reasons, including nonpayment of rent, lease violations, nuisance behavior, damage to the apartment and the owner wanting to move in.

But property owners argued the new law requires them to provide proof that can be hard to come by when it comes to nuisance behavior, such as asking tenants to testify against troublesome neighbors whom they may fear will come after them.

San José, one of the costliest rental markets in the nation, was one of the last big cities in California in which landlords didn’t have to justify refusal to renew a lease. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, East Palo Alto, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Monica have such rules.

San José officials said there were reports of more than 2,400 “no-cause evictions” in San José since 2010, including 92-year-old Paul Mayer, who was asked to leave his apartment of 44 years so his landlord could raise rent. Peggy DeMaio, Mayer’s landlord, didn’t speak at the council meeting, but had said she was evicting Mayer and all other tenants at the property to renovate it.

DeMaio served 34 other eviction notices and re-rented the units at higher rates. Mayer’s son, Robert, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said his family didn’t want a handout for Mayer — but instead wanted to spur changes to city policies.

“We are elated,” Mayer said Wednesday. “I believe my dad’s story was a catalyst to the change because it really brought to light that this really needed to be addressed. This decision has been years in the making. People can sleep at night not in fear of waking up in the morning to an eviction notice.”

The council majority decided the policy will cover all renters from day one. It is estimated to impact 450,000 renters citywide.

As part of Tuesday’s action, city housing officials also will study tying rent increases in the city’s 43,000 rent-controlled units to inflation — instead of the current 5 percent increase allowed annually — an idea backed by Rocha and Peralez. Rocha also succeeded in asking staff to look at putting duplexes under rent control, which would add an additional 11,000 units.

The City Council also approved Ellis Act protections on a 6-5 vote Tuesday. The mayor and same four council members dissented.

That policy requires landlords of rent-controlled units to provide 120 days to a year of notice before they demolish, remodel or convert their buildings and give renters the right to return. They also must provide displaced renters money to relocate. If those units are re-rented within five years, the landlord would need to put all new units back under rent control.

Property owners however focused their opposition on the just-cause rule.

Ruby Dominguez, a retired caretaker who said she was evicted without cause from her apartment after 27 years, said she’s grateful it won’t happen to others.

“It could happen to anybody,” said Dominguez, 73, who lived in a motel for four months. “Nobody thinks about it until it happens to them.”