The Just Cause for Eviction ordinance came to a sudden and unexpected end last week when backers failed to gain enough valid signatures to force the City Council to reconsider an earlier decision to repeal it.
That was good news for the council because members didn't have to once again make their cases for or against the controversial ordinance.
The lack of valid signatures also means the city won't have to pay for an election to decide the issue if, as anticipated, the council sustained its previous 4-3 vote to repeal the ordinance.
Petition backers had sought to force the issue with the threat of paying for a citywide vote hanging over the council if the repeal was sustained -- money the city couldn't afford to spend in tough budget times.
Not getting enough valid signatures made all this go away: no election, no vote by the council, no Just Cause for Eviction ordinance.
While many are likely happy with the result, everyone needs to realize that a serious problem remains. Foreclosures, while easing slightly in Merced according to the latest figures, are still a major problem throughout the region and evictions will continue.
As many opponents of the ordinance pointed out during the debate over it, there are already rules and regulations in place governing evictions, from outlining the amount of time renters can stay in homes after an eviction notice is served to the return of security deposits.
But just because those regulations are in place doesn't mean they are enforced.
There are plenty of rules against predatory lending practices, but that didn't stop it from becoming an all-too-common problem throughout the Valley during the run-up that lead to the housing market collapse.
While there have been some prosecutions connected with those abusive lending practices, they don't nearly reflect the extent of the problem that existed. Just because there are rules against such practices doesn't mean they are followed, especially when greed is involved.
With the collapse of the Just Cause for Eviction ordinance, Merced renters must go back to square one when it comes to trying to figure out just what rights they have and how to invoke them.
For most folks, that's not easy. They don't have business backgrounds, and they don't know how to access the resources needed to assert their rights. Language and cultural differences also can limit their ability to fight eviction abuses. And hiring a lawyer to take on such a case would likely be too costly -- assuming one could even be found.
So what's a renter to do?
One answer would be for all those real estate agents and their colleagues in related fields who proclaimed renters already have plenty of rights to come forward to provide a helping hand.
Businesses often say they want to police themselves and don't need more regulation. In the wake of Merced's regulatory backpedaling on evictions, the real estate community could fill the gap by coming up with a way to help renters who are in distress through no fault of their own.
They could work through existing organizations or form a new one to offer free counseling to renters and assistance with finding housing alternatives. They could provide an important community service while holding the rental industry here to a higher standard -- no downside there.
Another option would be for the real estate community to work with Tenants Together to provide the counseling and support needed to combat evictions that violate existing regulations. Working with the San Francisco-based renters' advocacy nonprofit probably seems counterintuitive for real estate professionals, but Tenants Together isn't going away.
By developing a fair and effective way to help renters faced with evictions, both sides could be part of the solution. That might help avoid a bitter struggle over a similar ordinance in the future -- which helps no one in the interim.
Political leaders must be part of the equation, too. Thinking they dodged a bullet and no longer need to worry about the issue isn't good enough. They can work to bring all sides together to find a way to help residents struggling to get by in today's harsh economic climate.
Renters aren't the enemy. These days, most people are just a health- care crisis or job loss away from foreclosure and eviction. All the more reason to extend a helping hand to ensure people in that situation get a fair shake.
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