Renter protections failed these Bay Area tenants. Now they’re demanding change.

New ordinances hurt more than help, some tenant advocates say

Author: Melissa Kendall

Date: 3/11/2019


REDWOOD CITY — As members of the Freedonia Tenants Union brace for rent hikes that will more than double their payments — forcing them out of their homes, and maybe even out of the state — they’re finding no help in their city’s new renter protection ordinances.

That’s because the rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, offer no recourse for people like them. In an effort to give tenants more stability, Redwood City now requires landlords to offer all tenants a one-year lease. But the rules do nothing to prevent a landlord from raising the rent every year, or evicting tenants when their leases expire. The rules also require landlords to pay relocation assistance to qualified tenants who are evicted, but tenants like the Freedonia renters who are priced out get nothing.

As the Freedonia tenants fall through the gaps left open by the city’s laws, they’re desperately trying to convince their elected officials that tenant protections that look good on paper may be unhelpful, or even harmful. It’s a cry for help that highlights how trying to assist renters often isn’t as easy as it seems.

And it comes as other jurisdictions, under increasing pressure to protect vulnerable renters, are enacting or considering the same rules. Menlo Park passed a one-year lease requirement in 2016, and is set to hold its second vote on a limited relocation assistance ordinance Tuesday. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss similar ordinances March 26.

Tenants rights activists are imploring them to reconsider.

“We are now seeing the consequences of this new legislation, and it turns out this legislation can be used to harm tenants,” said attorney Daniel Saver of Community Legal Services East Palo Alto, who is working with the Freedonia tenants. “We would hope that (Redwood City) would reconsider these laws in light of the very real unintended consequences that tenants are now suffering.”

The owners of the Freedonia tenants’ apartments — two neighboring two-story buildings on Duane Street in Redwood City — say they would have held off on issuing rent increases if City Council hadn’t forced their hand with the new one-year lease ordinance.

“First and foremost, we are empathetic to all the tenants at the property,” a representative of the owners, 100-150 Duane Street LLC, wrote in an emailed statement. When the owners took over the buildings a year ago, their property tax bill jumped up by more than $100,000 from what the prior owner paid, the representative wrote.

Tenant advocates say in the Bay Area’s overheated rental markets, landlords are eager to raise rents, and they may use ordinances like Redwood City’s new one-year lease rule as the perfect opportunity to do so.

The Freedonia Tenants Union, named after the fictional country of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” film, is made up of four residents of the Duane Street apartments. In January, the owners offered several apartments one-year leases at about $2,300 a month, effective May 1. For many of the residents, who have lived there for years and pay far below market rate, that’s an increase of more than 100 percent. Ten units received rent increases in all.

“I can’t pay that,” said Kat Pachinger, a 31-year-old gymnastics and fitness coach. She currently pays $1,070 a month for the one-bedroom apartment she’s lived in for more than nine years.

The owners also offered tenants the option of a month-to-month lease, with gradual increases that will hit about $2,500 by September — about the same price that the property managers are currently advertising for a completely remodeled unit in the building.

Instead, the Duane Street renters formed the Freedonia Tenants Union to fight the rent hikes. They’re holding a rally outside City Hall at 6 p.m. Monday, and will ask council to temporarily freeze rent increases, re-examine its renter protection laws and propose better solutions.

“The two ordinances that just went into effect were designed to give tenants more stability, and more protections when they are forced to relocate,” Redwood City Mayor Ian Bain wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, there are many other issues related to rental housing in the Bay Area right now, and we are actively looking at what else we can do to protect renters.”

The Freedonia residents also are hoping to call attention to the nuisances they’ve experienced during ongoing construction at the apartment buildings. Residents say they’ve endured the noise of constant hammering and power tools, disruption to their heat and hot water, broken windows and other problems for almost a year.

The landlord says it’s making necessary — and costly — repairs and upgrades to the 90-year-old building.

When the rents go up, 31-year-old Devin Davis, who works as a server at Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside, worries how he’ll cope.

“I’m looking at moving out of California,” he said. “I can’t afford this state.”

His across-the-hall neighbor, Stasha Powell, worries she’ll become homeless. But the 44-year-old, who suffers from a rare connective tissue disorder and gets by on disability benefits, remains optimistic that Monday’s rally will sway hearts in City Hall.

“We have to have hope. I mean, that’s all we can really do,” she said. “We have to have hope that they’ll help us.”

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