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Merced's new mayor, Stan Thurston, is seeking to re-open the floodgates to mass evictions by banks and investors acquiring foreclosed properties in Merced. The Mayor is leading efforts to repeal Merced's Just Cause for Eviction law that protects renters after foreclosure. The city council will vote whether to repeal the law on Monday, May 21, at Merced City Hall.
Since December, arbitrary evictions of tenants after foreclosure have been outlawed under Merced's just cause for eviction law. The law applies to foreclosed properties and prohibits evictions of renters unless there is specific cause (like nonpayment of rent, nuisance, owner move-in, etc) for the eviction. Foreclosure alone is not grounds for eviction of tenants under the ordinance. Similar laws to stop arbitrary evictions have been upheld by California courts.
"While local officials across the state are looking for ways to protect their residents from national banks, Mayor Thurston stands out as a local official who is actively looking for ways to make it easier for banks to evict more tenants in his community," commented Dean Preston, Executive Director of Tenants Together, California's statewide organization for renters' rights. "His predecessors passed a law that, without costing the city a dime, stops post-foreclosure evictions of innocent renters, and one of his first acts as mayor is to try to repeal that law. Is he serious?"
The repeal effort has prompted widespread criticism. The law's supporters include not just tenant rights groups, but labor and other allies. Most recently, the local chapter of UDW, the homecare workers union, issued a letter supporting the law. Other allies will testify alongside tenants at Monday's repeal hearing.
Tenants Together is assisting Merced families who want nothing more than to stay in their homes and keep paying rent. One recent case involves a family that had lived in their home for six years, faithfully paying the rent every month while their landlord failed to make mortgage payments. After their landlord's foreclosure, a Sacramento-based speculator immediately tried to kick the family out of their home for no reason, but with the help of Tenants Together, the family is asserting their right to stay in the home. Another family learned of the new law after it was too late. They were kicked out of the townhouse they rented in Merced after foreclosure, and were never informed of, or aware of, their rights under the local Just Cause for Eviction law.
Merced Tenants Together member Jeff Freitas has been doing outreach to make sure renters know their rights. He was instrumental in passing the Just Cause for Eviction Law law that protects Merced renters. "This is just about basic fairness. We don't want good tenants getting kicked out of their homes so that some bank or investment group can sit on vacant property. That's detrimental to the entire community. Our law stops these evictions."
The Merced County Association of Realtors is at the heart of the repeal effort. The realtors were silent for nearly a year as the law was being discussed at council, but at the last minute in November they mounted an all-out attack to prevent the ordinance from becoming law. It passed over their objections. Now, they are demanding repeal the popular law.
Mayor Pro Tem Noah Lor, Councilmember Mary-Michal Rawling, and Councilmember Bill Blake have been steadfast supporters of the law. In a recent Op-Ed in the local Merced Sun-Star, they explained their support for the law: "We will not continue to allow banks and other post-foreclosure owners to displace Merced's families for no good reason. The 'Just Cause for Eviction' law strikes the right balance: allowing eviction where a tenant does something wrong or where the landlord wants to move into the property, but prohibiting eviction where there is no good cause." The Sun-Star issued an editorial endorsing the law and applauding the council for adopting it November 2011.
Councilmember Pedrozo has confounded observers by changing his position repeatedly on the issue. In August 2011, he spoke and blogged in support of the law, calling it a "proactive approach" to foreclosure evictions and prolonged vacancies. He also praised the proposed law on his blog. Three months later, in early November, he voted against the law. On second reading in late November, he voted for it, although his final vote was believed to be a procedural tactic. According to Guillermo Elenes, organizer with Tenants Together, "We're waiting to see which Pedrozo shows up on May 21 - the one who stands with Mercedians or the one who helps banks evict our neighbors."
Sixteen cities in California have just cause for eviction laws. The laws vary in scope but all prohibit the eviction of renters after foreclosure unless there are grounds (such as nonpayment of rent) for the eviction. Several cities have adopted these laws recently in response to the epidemic of foreclosure evictions.
Statewide, Tenants Together estimates that at least 38 percent of foreclosed units are rentals, with hundreds of thousands of renters displaced since the foreclosure crisis began. Tenants Together issues an annual report on the plight of California tenants in the foreclosure crisis. The reports are available on the organization's website, www.tenantstogether.org. Tenants Together also operates a hotline for California tenants in foreclosure situations.