Graphic courtesy of the City of East Palo Alto
It’s no secret that the housing situation in East Palo Alto is facing some challenges. It seems that many people are quick to blame the tech companies around us for the rental rate spikes.
In an effort to resolve some of the rental issues affecting the city, the City of East Palo Alto hired Dr. Stephen Barton in July 2014 to conduct a review of the city’s Rent Stabilization Program. Barton is the former deputy director of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Program and the former director of the Berkeley Housing Department.
In January of this year, Dr. Barton finalized his review of the city’s Rent Stabilization Program and he presented his findings during the September 15, 2015 East Palo Alto City Council meeting. In the report, Barton made 18 recommendations to improve the rent program (A full copy of the report can be found at http://www.cityofepa.org/DocumentCenter/View/2049.).
The council meeting, itself, served as a study session. During the session, the members of the Rent Stabilization Program asked for direction from the council to move forward with Dr. Barton’s recommendations, since they seemed in favor of the stricter policies his report recommended.
In his presentation, Victor Ramirez, the Rent Stabilization Board’s administrator, reminded the city council of the goals of the Rent Stabilization Program: “to stabilize rent, to ensure that no discriminatory, retaliatory, arbitrary evictions occur in the city and also to ensure that landlords have a fair return on their investment as well as to ensure that rental units that are subject to the program are up to code.”
Members of the audience were given the opportunity to speak about the issue, and the last item, in the list of goals Ramirez cited, turned out to be one of the main concerns given by the speakers. While many of the renters’ concerns focused on the conditions of their living areas, the landlords' concerns seemed to focus on their own rising costs.
Jennifer Liu, an East Palo Alto landlord, argued that stricter rules governing rental increases make it difficult for landlords to maintain their living spaces. Liu said that the rental return rate is less than 4% and the issue comes down to supply and demand. She argued that the stricter regulations will drive investors away, which will consequently decrease the supply of available units for rent.
Midge Dorn, a member of the Rent Stabilization Board, countered Liu’s argument. Dorn, who was especially concerned about the status of the living conditions, stated that “many people in East Palo Alto do not have a safe and healthy place to live.” She strongly suggested that East Palo Alto establish an inspection program.
Luciano Banderas, an East Palo Alto resident, supported Dorn’s concern. He informed the council that rats and cockroaches are a huge problem in the west side of East Palo Alto. According to Banderas, the buildings themselves are not in good condition and the bathroom walls, even, have holes in them. For Banderas, the major problem is that the 2,000 plus families in the apartments on the west side don’t know where they will go if they are forced to leave.
Given the comments of the meeting’s presenters, listeners could conclude that while costs are certainly rising, living conditions have not improved. So, if the living conditions are so poor, why haven’t the landlords been punished? Have tenants in the rental units complained? In addressing these questions, Patricia Garcia, another Rent Stabilization board member, explained that there’s a fear of retaliation among the tenants, and tenants, like Banderas and his neighbors, are afraid to speak up.
Council member Larry Moody supported Garcia’s assessment. He said, “There’s an intimidation factor, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, but there’s a lot of residents and tenants who are just afraid to come forward.”
Moody added, “It just grieves my spirit every time I hear the public constantly come in here to talk about the issues related to the health and wellness of the units they’re living in. And this idea of getting accustomed to living where rats and roaches [live].… It’s just appalling. We don’t have to be a community that accepts that as the norm.”
Moody supported the idea of an inspection program and stated that “if we’re not willing to regulate that here internally, I think we need to get the county, maybe even the state [to do it].”
Victor Ramirez invited tenants to come forward. “Please come to my office and talk …. and we’ll be providing you with information about what options you have and assist you or provide you with the necessary forms for you to file a petition,” he said.
The council agreed that something had to be done, but it acknowledged that it will take time. For now, tenants are invited to contact the Rent Stabilization Board by calling 650-853-3114.
Elizabeth Real recently completed a journalism internship at East Palo Alto Today. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org