The largest landlord in East Palo Alto has sent out about 1,000 pre-eviction notices to tenants, according to the official overseeing the city's rent-control program.
Equity Residential, which bought 1,793 East Palo Alto apartment units in December, started delivering the three-day "pay rent or quit" notices in January, according to Carol Lamont, the city's Rent Stabilization Program administrator.
In her July 20 memo to Interim City Manager Ron Davis, she said such notices are the first step in the eviction process. She added that at least 168 tenants received more than one such notice.
And of 725 notices Equity Residential sent tenants between January and June of this year, 111 sought rents that exceeded the maximum allowed under the city's rent-control ordinance, Lamont wrote.
The company has also failed to fully comply with a city ordinance that requires owners of rental units to provide copies of all eviction-related notices to the city's rent board within five calendar days of giving them to tenants, Lamont added.
Davis told The Daily News he was concerned to learn that the number of three-day notices has grown exponentially. According to city records, 330 were issued in June and Equity Residential reported 360 went out in July, although it has not yet sent copies of those documents to the city, Lamont reported in her memo.
Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Equity Residential, said a three-day warning is different than an eviction notice.
"This is the normal process, if people don't pay their rent, they get a notice," he said. "Most of those notices get settled. Some people just need to be pushed."
According to a guideline for landlords posted on the state's website for California's courts, "In order to start the eviction process, you, as the landlord, must first give the tenant written notice." If the tenant does not comply with a three-day "pay rent or quit" notice, then the landlord can file an "unlawful detainer" lawsuit to have the tenant kicked out.
McKenna said only a handful of notices made it to evictions.
"We've only had 45 evictions and this is an 1,800-unit property," he said. Equity owns more than half of East Palo Alto's rental stock.
McKenna said that under the company's interpretation of the rent ordinance, it doesn't have to send the city all copies of eviction-related notices. The company also contests the city's assertion that some tenants received notices for excessive rent, he added. "No one is being charged more than what's legally allowed."
Shirley Gibson, a housing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, said the agency has seen an uptick of tenants seeking advice about what to do with Equity Residential's unlawful detainer lawsuits, including 14 this month.
It's important that tenants know their rights and exercise them quickly because eviction rulings can be handed down within weeks, she said.
"Equity Residential, the attorneys they use routinely, are very efficient, they run an efficient eviction mill," she said.
Equity Residential, based in Chicago, is one of the nation's largest landlords. It purchased the East Palo Alto properties from Wells Fargo, which took over the portfolio from previous owner Page Mill Properties after it foreclosed on a loan of about $250 million in March 2010.
Tenant advocates and city officials battled Page Mill when it aggressively raised rents, evicted tenants and sued the city over its rent-control ordinance.
Concerns surfaced that Equity Residential will act the same way, particularly since its chairman, Samuel Zell, has been an active opponent of rent-control laws.
Vice Mayor Ruben Abrica said it's important for the city to monitor the eviction activities of Equity Residential. "They seem to be following the same pattern that Page Mill Properties did," he said.
The report on Equity Residential will be discussed tonight by the East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board. The meeting at City Hall, 2415 University Ave., starts at 7 p.m.
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