Residents Propose Rent Changes

Thursday, May 29, 2008
Banks Albach
Palo Alto Daily News

East Palo Alto's Rent Stabilization Board was poised to make changes to local rent control Wednesday night until a group of residents introduced changes of their own, which the city is now considering.

The proposed modifications grew out of a peer review by Berkeley's rent control staff, a development that came after East Palo Alto lost a legal battle over its rent stabilization program earlier this year.

Berkeley's staff prepared two revised plans - one slightly changed and the other substantially different - from the current rules and regulations that govern the original law that voters passed in the mid-1980s. Changing the actual ordinance requires another vote from the people.

The board was tasked Wednesday with choosing one of the two, until the residents introduced their own draft. But instead of making an abrupt choice, the board directed staff to analyze the citizen draft and report to the board at a special June 18 meeting.

"We have to do this right," Board Member William Webster said.

The most notable section of all three drafts deals with how maximum rents are adjusted each year. All three drafts state that rents will increase once per year a consumer index that is usually 3.2 percent. But the first, slightly changed draft maintains the status quo, which landed the city in a heap of trouble with local landlord Page Mill Properties.

The city's rent board staff hands out certificates of maximum rent to landlords for each unit and adjusts them annually by the price index. Over the last seven or eight years, however, those certified rents kept going up, while actual rents dropped. Page Mill raised rents across the board in 1,300 units, using the certificates as basis for the increases.

California law states that those certificates are binding, and lawyers for Page Mill argue that the local law backs it up.

The second Berkeley draft and the resident-submitted proposal intend to clear up the issue by stating that if actual rent being paid is lower than what is certified, the landlord has to charge the lower price.

The authors of the resident draft told the board that their version is shorter and "alleviates errors and points of frictions."

Arnold Hart, a single father whose rent jumped by about 20 percent, spoke to the board.

"Let's take our stand and adjust this ordinance to protect our citizens and our community," Hart said.

But Chris Griffith, who represents Page Mill, said any change on Wednesday - and possibly in the future - will likely land the city back in court. Griffith represented the landlord in a suit against the city and managed to get a judge to throw out a six-month moratorium on rent increases after Page Mill implemented the rent hikes.

She said the first two drafts, and possibly the third citizen-submitted proposal, violate the ordinance at first glance. To make changes, she said, the board has to send them back to the ballot.

"You have to do it with a vote of the people," Griffith said.

The East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board will take up the changes at a special meeting on June 18 in City Hall, 2415 University Ave.

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