‘Put in a corner,’ El Cerrito scraps just-cause eviction law

EL CERRITO — The 25,000-person town of El Cerrito was the
latest target for a deep-pocket California landlord interest group,
which shelled out more than $30,000 to kill a just-cause for
eviction ordinance that would have affected a little more than 100
landlords.

The ordinance — which was adopted May 21 and was supposed to
go into effect June 20 — limited the reasons why landlords could
evict tenants, and prohibited landlords from harassing or
retaliating against them; it also created a registry for rental
properties.

The ordinance only applied to properties with five or more
rental units that existed before 2015 — there are 105 such
properties in El Cerrito, City Council member Greg Lyman said at a
July 31 council meeting.

Before the law went into effect, though, statewide landlord and
developer trade group the California Apartment Association, put
$30,391.50 into a signature-gathering initiative for a petition
against the ordinance, according to California Fair Political
Practices Commission filings. Within about two weeks, opponents
gathered enough signatures — validated by the Contra Costa County
Elections Office — to force the City Council to either repeal the
ordinance or submit it to voters.

On July 31, El Cerrito City Council members reluctantly chose to
repeal the ordinance; Mayor Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto was the only
member who opposed. Council members said putting it on a ballot
would be too costly an endeavor for a law that affected so few
people relative to the city’s overall population. Holding a
special election for the matter would cost the city $81,000 to
$114,000, and $20,000 to $49,000 if the ballot was included in a
regularly scheduled election date.

Council member Paul Fadelli, at the meeting, said the council
was “put in a corner.”

A second vote is required to repeal the ordinance; that vote is
scheduled for the next council meeting Aug. 20.

The California Apartment Association used the same strategy to
stall Richmond’s rent control ordinance in 2015. After the City
Council approved it, the organization paid for a petition drive and
gathered enough signatures to force the Richmond City Council into
the same situation.

The council ended up repealing the ordinance, but the following
year it put a slightly different rent control ordinance on the
ballot that passed. The California Apartment Association then sued
in 2017 to fight the measure, but was unsuccessful.

The California Apartment Association led a
campaign in Concord
this year to successfully pressure the City
Council to not consider just-cause for eviction and rent control
policies. The California Apartment Association has also battled
with tenant advocates over rent control in Santa Rosa. After the
city council approved a 3 percent annual rent cap in 2016, the
California Apartment Association launched a petition to reverse it,
and when the rent cap proposal went before voters in summer 2017,
it failed.

On the state level, the group is fighting a
rent cap bill
that now includes a just cause for eviction
policy as well.

Pardue-Okimoto, in an interview, said she was “shocked” that
the California Apartment Association put so much time, energy and
money into defeating what she and others saw as a pretty modest
just-cause for eviction ordinance. She said she wanted it to extend
to more renters, but the City Council reached a compromise in
having it only apply to properties with five or more units. About
40 percent of El Cerrito’s population rents, according to a city
report in May.

“Every time I meet someone, they’re worried about their rent
going up and worried about ending up on the street or having to
move out of the area,” Pardue-Okimoto said. “I was trying to do
my best to help those people, and it makes me really sad that this
big organization with lots of money came in and really stomped on
people that need help.”

California Apartment Association’s senior vice president for
Northern California Joshua Howard, in a statement, said the group
opposes just cause eviction laws “because of their negative
impacts on rental properties and the community at large.”

“These laws make it more difficult, and sometimes impossible,
to evict problem tenants,” Howard said.

The California Apartment Association’s Issues Committee —
one of the organization’s political action committees — has
spent a total of $167,514 this year, according to Secretary of
State campaign finance records.

In addition to the $30,391.50 spent on the El Cerrito
referendum, it contributed $125,000 to Citizens for Affordable
Housing — a coalition of organizations and developers that the
California Apartment Association started to fight rent control
initiatives in Sacramento. Sacramento’s city council will vote
Monday on an ordinance placing a 10 percent annual cap on rent
increases and other tenant protections.

Last year, the committee garnered $760,000 in contributions and
spent $645,497, campaign finance records show.

Sasha Harnden, a policy advocate for Sacramento-based
anti-poverty group the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said in
an interview that the California Apartment Association is one of
the top two most powerful groups in the state representing landlord
interests, along with the California Association of Realtors.

“These landlord interests have so much power over our elected
representatives,” Harnden said.

Pardue-Okimoto and Fadelli both said they encountered signature
collectors who misled signers about what the petition was for.
Pardue-Okimoto said she herself heard them say the petition would
“help stop crime in El Cerrito” and also that it was about
whether the city would have rent control — the ordinance had
nothing to do with rent control. She said the implication that just
cause for eviction would prevent crime has “racial
undertones.”

“This is used as a scare tactic to fight off local protections
for tenants to essentially allow landlords to have free reign over
their property and what’s going on at their properties,”
Harnden said.

Howard, in his statement, said just cause ordinances make it
hard for landlords to evict tenants who are involved in “criminal
enterprises, such as drug dealing or gang activity” since proving
so often requires testimony from other residents, “which is
understandably difficult to come by.”

El Cerrito’s just-cause for eviction ordnance would have
included an exemption to allow landlords to evict tenants who were
engaged in illegal activity, as well as if tenants fail to pay rent
or breach their rental agreement.

Sherry Drobner, an organizer with El Cerrito Progressives — a
group that rallied in support of the ordinance — said in an
interview that she encountered a signature gatherer wearing a
Bernie Sanders T-shirt who told her that the petition was to put
rent control on the ballot. When she asked him which group he was
with, he said he was on his own. When she saw what the petition was
actually for, she realized it was for the referendum. When she
posted about the encounter on social media, she was bombarded with
responses.

“So many people contacted me after because they had signed the
petition thinking it was something positive for renters,” she
said.

Howard would not say whether signature gatherers were given
talking points or scripts.

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“The signature gatherers were equipped with the information
needed to explain the referendum to voters and they’re required
to explain the measure fairly; we have no reason to believe this
did not happen,” Howard said in an email.

“It’s important to remember, too, that voters presented with
a petition have the right – and the duty — to read it before
signing. If afterward a voter thinks he or she made a mistake, that
voter has avenues for removing the signature before the petition is
submitted,” he added.

The petition itself said it was a referendum against the just
cause for eviction ordinance. Though the petition listed the name
of the ordinance, it only described it as “related to termination
of tenancy and other tenant protections.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
‘Put in a corner,’ El Cerrito scraps just-cause eviction law