Coun­cil balks at stronger ren­ter pro­tec­tions, opts for ‘mi­nor tweaks’ to rent re­view law

The Mercury News - - Legal Advertising And Public Notices - By Joseph Geha [email protected] ba­yare­anews­group.com

In the first year of Fre­mont’s rent re­view pro­gram, nearly half of those who sought help with rent in­creases saw them low­ered, but some renters and city coun­cil mem­bers still don’t think the pro­gram goes far enough to help ten­ants.

The up­date on the pro­gram was pre­sented by staff at the re­cent Fre­mont City Coun­cil meet­ing, where the coun­cil sub­se­quently voted to make some mi­nor tweaks to its rent re­view or­di­nance, but backed off of strength­en­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­tal­i­a­tion pro­tec­tions for renters.

Coun­cil­woman Jenny Kas­san and Coun­cil­man Vin­nie Ba­con said they would have pre­ferred to beef up those pro­tec­tions, and look at adopt­ing rent con­trol in the city, but the other five mem­bers of the coun­cil chose the sta­tus quo.

The city’s re­view or­di­nance is in­tended to help land­lords and renters me­di­ate dis­putes over rent in­creases. The coun­cil adopted the or­di­nance in fall 2017, and the pro­gram went into ef­fect in 2018.

About 22,500 rental units in the city are el­i­gi­ble for the city’s re­view pro­gram, which en­cour­ages renters and land­lords to work to­gether to set­tle rent dis­putes that city staff can help with.

If that doesn’t work, the city of­fers a phone con­sul­ta­tion, then in-per­son me­di­a­tion. If none of those steps re­solves the dis­pute, then a ten­ant who is fac­ing a 5 per­cent or greater rent in­crease for the year can re­quest a pub­lic hear­ing in front of a five-mem­ber rent re­view board.

How­ever, the con­sul­ta­tions and any rec­om­men­da­tions from the board are non-bind­ing, mean­ing the land­lord does not have to honor them, which renters ad­vo­cates say makes it in­ef­fec­tual.

In the pro­gram’s first year, 71 peo­ple in­quired about rent re­view ser­vices and 47 of them qual­i­fied. About 45 per­cent of the cases were re­solved with a low­ered rent in­crease. The av­er­age rent in­crease was about 11.5 per­cent and de­creased to 8.7 per­cent af­ter the process, staff said.

Only one per­son’s case made it as far as a board hear­ing.

Staff dis­cov­ered sev­eral “lim­i­ta­tions” and “chal­lenges,” in­clud­ing fear of re­tal­i­a­tion by land­lords and dis­crim­i­na­tion against low­in­come renters, dur­ing the first year of run­ning the pro­gram. Pro­gram man­agers of­fered eight po­ten­tial so­lu­tions to ad­dress them, in­clud­ing ad­ding a law to pre­vent land­lords from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against a po­ten­tial ten­ant based on their source of in­come.

Cur­rently, land­lords can re­ject a ten­ant solely be­cause they would use a sub­sidy to help pay rent, such as a Sec­tion 8, or Hous­ing Choice Voucher, which staff said adds to the al­ready dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion renters face when look­ing for af­ford­able places to live in Fre­mont. Ac­cord­ing to a staff re­port which drew data from four rental list­ing sites, the av­er­age cur­rent rent for a twobed­room apart­ment in Fre­mont is roughly $2,820.

The coun­cil voted against in­sti­tut­ing such a law, which city staff said nine other cities and coun­ties in Cal­i­for­nia have adopted.

An­other idea re­jected by coun­cil would have at­tempted to limit re­tal­i­a­tion against renters by re­quir­ing land­lords to pro­vide re­lo­ca­tion as­sis­tance upon evict­ing some­one, which could “act as a fi­nan­cial de­ter­rent against evic­tion.” San Le­an­dro, Moun­tain View and Berke­ley cur­rently have such rules in place.

Out of 47 rent-re­view cases, about 11 were never com­pleted be­cause the ten­ants feared re­tal­i­a­tion or felt there wasn’t ad­e­quate pro­tec­tion from re­tal­i­a­tion in the city’s law, staff re­ports said. The city’s or­di­nance in­cludes a $2,000 penalty for land­lords who re­tal­i­ate against ten­ants, but the city doesn’t en­force it.

“There have also been ten­ants who reached out to the city to ask about the rent re­view process and in­ten­tion­ally did not re­quest for a rent re­view be­cause of the fear of re­tal­i­a­tion,” a staff re­port said.

Bill Mul­grew, the di­rec­tor of the Rental Hous­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of South­ern Alameda County, said lay­er­ing “ad­di­tional reg­u­la­tion” on land­lords be­cause a small num­ber of peo­ple ex­pressed fear of re­tal­i­a­tion amounts to “noth­ing less than pro­fil­ing,” and asked the coun­cil to re­ject it.

Mul­grew of­fered up a list of five of the eight so­lu­tions his as­so­ci­a­tion would be OK with, and those same five so­lu­tions are ul­ti­mately what Mayor Lily Mei, Vice Mayor Raj Sal­wan, Coun­cil­woman Teresa Keng, and coun­cil­men Rick Jones and Yang Shao sup­ported. They in­cluded giv­ing more author­ity to land­lord rep­re­sen­ta­tives to raise and lower rents dur­ing me­di­a­tion, and slightly ex­pand­ing which kinds of rental units are el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram.

“I am con­cerned that we were given a list of which items were sup­ported by the rental Hous­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and now we’re hear­ing that ex­act same list is what’s mov­ing for­ward,” Kas­san said.

“I don’t feel com­fort­able with that. I feel like we should trust our staff to know what needs to be done,” she said.

Ba­con said the city should adopt just-cause evic­tion laws, re­quir­ing land­lords to have good rea­son to evict a ten­ant, as well as “hard­ened rent con­trol”, which he said would be sim­pler.

“There would be no need to ar­bi­trate any­thing, it would just be there,” he said.

Mei and Jones both said that they didn’t want to make any ma­jor changes to the or­di­nance be­cause the re­gional plan­ning ef­fort known as the CASA com­pact, and some state law­mak­ers, are push­ing for rent caps, evic­tion pro­tec­tions, and other rent-con­trol re­lated leg­is­la­tion that may come into play very soon.

Chunchi Ma, of the Bay Area Home­own­ers Net­work, told the coun­cil the low num­ber of peo­ple us­ing the rent re­view ser­vices “shows that the hous­ing sit­u­a­tion in Fre­mont is largely un­der con­trol, and most im­por­tantly, that the cur­rent rent me­di­a­tion process works just as well.”

An­nie Koruga, whose fam­ily are renters in Fre­mont, dis­agreed.

“Cur­rently, we have a sit­u­a­tion where rents go up, and Fre­mont res­i­dents are forced out of their com­mu­ni­ties, be­cause we have no rent con­trol or­di­nance call­ing for bind­ing de­ci­sions, and we have a rent re­view board who makes op­tional rules,” Koruga said to the coun­cil.

“Land­lords aren’t go­ing to stop rais­ing their rents be­cause we ask very nicely,” Koruga said.

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