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Council’s compromise on rent control won’t be retroactive

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Local renters facing eviction turned to the Tracy City Council on Tuesday for relief.

At the end of a long discussion and a series of failed motions, the council passed an urgency ordinance that moves up the effective date of a new state rent control law from Jan. 1, 2020, to this week. A proposal that would have made the ordinance retroactive to a date before the renters’ eviction notices needed support from at least four council members but could get support from only three.

The council discussed the local effects of AB 1482, a statewide rent control law, for 1 hour, 45 minutes on Tuesday at its regular meeting. The law sets new limits on how much landlords can raise rents on existing tenants and also restricts property owners’ ability to issue notices to vacate apartments.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law Oct. 8 after it passed through the state Assembly and Senate with strong Democratic support and Republican opposition.

The law is set to take effect Jan. 1, which left a nearly three-month gap in which landlords could operate under the old rules. That includes the ability to evict renters even if they’ve been good tenants, as long as they’re given proper legal notice. The result was that at least one group of local renters received 60-day notices from their landlord ordering them to move out before the end of the year — a move that, going forward, will be illegal under state law as of Jan. 1.

While landlords are limited in how much they can raise the rent on existing tenants, once an apartment is vacated the property owner is free to raise the rent for new tenants, even under the new law, to whatever the local rental marketplace will allow.

Seventh Street resident Hannah Kemp said that while statewide rent control would benefit her, the three-month gap between Newsom’s signing of the law and the date the law takes effect has caused a hardship for her and her neighbors, who have been given 60-day notices. Her only alternative to moving out is to pay what a new tenant would pay, which turns out to be an increase from $900 to $1,400 per month.

“The letter included in the eviction notice that we received, it explains in black and white that the reason this is happening is because of the new rent law that is going into effect,” Kemp told the council. “In the letter it says specifically that (the property owner) will be forbidden from increasing the rent. So while there’s this temporary loophole in the system, he’s taking advantage of that and plans on increasing the rent by $500 a month. For me that’s impossible. That’s not something I can do.”

Melinda Ramirez of Tracy Community Connections Center said her group is constantly learning of people at risk of losing their homes because of high rents.

“It seems like almost every week, if not more than once a week, there’s a family with kids or an elderly couple or disabled couple that has lost their home or are about to lose their home, that need help with rent,” Ramirez said. “It’s getting worse. I know a couple of the tenants that are working with me to try to find housing, to try to find anything, trying to find someplace to go, but when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you have to leave, there’s just no way to save up.”

The new law has set the stage for a statewide battle over rent control. Tracy City Attorney Leticia Ramirez noted that at least one lawsuit — Better Housing for Long Beach is suing the city of Long Beach and the governor over the law — claims that statewide rent control amounts to an unconstitutional taking of property.

Local property manager Mary Mitracos echoed that sentiment.

“Whatever rent you’re collecting has a big effect on what your property is worth,” Mitracos said. “So when the state of California comes along and says to people, who are providing rental housing to people who need it, that we are going to limit the amount of money that you can make on your rental property, what kind of incentive is that for people to go into the rental business, or for anybody to build any kind of rental housing?”

The ordinance approved by the council on Tuesday effectively made the provisions of AB 1482 active in Tracy as of this Wednesday. The city attorney noted that the council needed a four-fifths vote to approve the ordinance, as it would have to be introduced and approved at the same time and would take effect immediately. Ordinarily, the introduction and approval of an ordinance happen at separate meetings and it takes 30 days to become law.

Before voting, the council discussed whether the ordinance could be retroactive. The ordinance that Ramirez drafted would be retroactive to Oct. 8 for rent increases above what the new state law would allow, but that wouldn’t apply to 60-day notices.

Councilwoman Veronica Vargas said that she opposed AB 1482 and that was reflected in her votes on the local law.

“It’s terrible what’s happening to some of the folks who are renting,” Vargas said, but she added that her parents rely on income from the rental properties they own to support them in retirement. “This hinders their ability to sustain those homes.

“I think that this is a terrible, terrible bill. I know the intent of it, but it’s not helpful. I wish we could appeal it. I wish we could do something.”

Councilwomen Rhodesia Ransom and Nancy Young pushed for an ordinance that would apply to both rent increases and 60-day notices back to Oct. 8.

“What we’re asking for is just a short span of time,” Young said. “What we’re doing is to try to help those that are caught in this nexus in between. I believe that things will work its way out, smooth itself out, but at the same time, we’re responsible for helping the most vulnerable people at this point.”

Ransom said she understood both sides of the issue but also wanted to help those who are vulnerable.

“I’m not trying to hurt a landlord or hurt a business person, but I’m also not going to be (an) accomplice to circumventing the law and putting people in a position of becoming homeless,” she said.

Councilman Dan Arriola also proposed that the city make the provisions of the ordinance retroactive to Oct. 8, but his first motion to pass an ordinance that mirrored the language of AB 1482 failed on a 3-2 vote, with Ransom and Young dissenting because they didn’t see how it would help local residents.

A follow-up motion — specifying that the local ordinance should apply to rent increases and no-fault evictions, including the 60-day notices handed out to people like Kemp and her neighbors, retroactive to Oct. 8 — failed on a 3-2 vote, with Vargas and Mayor Robert Rickman dissenting.

Young then tried to clarify her position, that the local ordinance should be designed so that it would include renters who had already received 60-day notices.

“I just want to make sure we’re clear that we’re all exactly on the same page, with the exception of the period of time that we’re covering,” Young said, admonishing the rest of the council for not protecting people who had already received 60-day notices.

“So it’s not the will of the council that we actually cover those that have been impacted from Oct. 8 to Dec. 3, which is why we’re here today,” she said. “We’re here with everything else. It’s just that little window of time that we can’t say: Yes, we want to retroactively cover those who have already been affected.”

She made a similar motion, which again failed on a 3-2 vote, again with Vargas and Rickman dissenting. Rickman followed up by stating that landlords should be able to control their property, especially if they want to use it again for themselves.

Rickman then made a motion that would make the local ordinance effective as of Wednesday, with no retroactive provision for the 60-day notices, and that passed on a 4-1 vote, with Young dissenting.

Local rent control advocates in the crowd saw it as a positive outcome, and Kemp said she expected it would help her and her neighbors in their efforts to get their 60-day notices rescinded.

The ordinance contains a provision to prohibit excessive rent increases as of Oct. 8, and the 60-day notice that Kemp and others in her building received includes the memo from the landlord stating that the notices were necessary if he was to raise rents to market rates.

She also noted that because her 60-day notice had not expired yet, the local ordinance could still apply to her situation.

“We have a leg to stand on, so we can fight it,” she said.

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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