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The Next Big Thing: A Rent Control/Rent Stabilization Ordinance in Santa Cruz

by Steve Pleich (spleich [at]
This Conversation Needs to Start Now!
As we stand in the glow of the newly approved Sanctuary City Ordinance, we can all be proud of the grassroots energy and activism that pushed this law into the light and continues to stand in solidarity with our immigrant communities. And although questions linger about the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and influence within our community and while much work needs to be done to provide truly comprehensive protection to our immigrants and undocumented residents, we can and should cast our collective gave forward to the next and most important issue on the local horizon: The need for a Rent Control or Rent Stabilization Ordinance.

While I generally favor the broader concept, there are many questions that need to be addressed before moving forward with even a draft ordinance. However, one fact is beyond contestation. Rising rents in our community continue to force out working men and women, and particularly the working poor, who have traditionally used reasonably priced rentals as a gateway to the purchase of a family home. Unless we move right now to stabilize rental prices in Santa Cruz, we will continue to lose our local workforce and the hard earned dollars they contribute to our local economy. And what is worse, we will simultaneously open up the very real possibility of becoming a "bedroom" community where higher wage workers and professionals from out of the area dominate the housing market, further marginalizing our resident workforce. So let's take a closer look at the basic elements which must be included in any prospective rental control or rent stabilization ordinance.

Chief among these is whether or not the ordinance would be limited to units constructed before a certain time. For instance, the ordinance may provide that rental units constructed before 1980 would arguably be fully paid for and so the need to raise the rent to compensate for existing or rising mortgage payments would not be a factor. Also, in light of the fact that Santa Cruz has such a large number of mobile home rental units, it may be both fiscally wise and administratively expedient to separate the ordinance to provide subsets of regulations for mobile homes and apartment rentals. It would also be necessary to limit any rise in rent to not exceed more than once in any twelve (12) months. We must also consider whether such an ordinance would provide for exemptions such as units voluntarily vacated or vacated subject to eviction and include an overall exemption for any rental funded through a government subsidy program.

I believe it would be wise public policy to consider including greater protections for renters within the body of the ordinance. Specifying and requiring binding or non binding rental dispute mediation and/or arbitration and the clear delineation of tenants legal rights would serve to clarify and codify the respective legal positions of landlords and tenants in a way that could guarantee fundamental fairness of process. Renters must be free from retaliation or threat of lawsuits for exercising their rights under any rental agreement and the imposition of "pass through" charges must be specifically prohibited.

To insure that tenants receive the full protection of the law, I would propose that any draft ordinance include a "just cause" provision either as part of the ordinance or as a separate and supplemental ordinance. (e.g., Seattle JCEO) A Just Cause Eviction Ordinance requires landlords have just cause reasons to terminate tenancy or evict month-to-month or other periodic tenants (tenants who pay rent weekly or twice a month). Just causes for eviction include nonpayment of rent, noncompliance with lease terms, chronically late rent payments, and the intention of the landlord to occupy the unit themselves or rent the unit to an immediate family member. The notice required for each just cause reason varies but can and should be reasonably ascertained and clearly specified in the ordinance. The landlord cannot use just cause termination in retaliation for a tenant asserting their rights under landlord-tenant law or calling in a complaint with code enforcement.

As mentioned above, one of the most common "just cause" provision address instances where the landlord intends to occupy the unit themselves or rent it to an immediate family member. In order to use this just cause reason, there must not be another comparable unit available in the building. Immediate family is considered a domestic partner, spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling or child. If the landlord uses this just cause reason to end the tenancy, the tenant is entitled to 20 days written notice before the day that rent is due.

Another common just cause is when the owner decides to sell a single family dwelling unit. In this instance, tenants living in single family dwelling units that are being put up for sale are commonly entitled to 60 days written notice before the end of a rental period. Single family dwelling units are houses designed to hold a single family, not apartment buildings, duplexes, or triplexes. Within the 30 days after the tenant leaves, the landlord must take action to list and show the unit. The landlord must continue to try to sell the unit for 90 days after they first listed and showed the unit. If the landlord does not go through with these steps, a tenant would be entitled to legal resource through the terms of the ordinance itself or through the local Small Claims Court.

These are but a few of the legal, commercial and ethical questions that must be considered by council and subject to discussion in an open and transparent public process. To think we know more than we do about this incredibly complex issue is a recipe for failure as a public policy and would cause the visitation of unnecessary hardship on landlord and tenant alike. I recommend that we take a good look at regional models such as the current ordinance in the neighboring City of San Jose before we take this leap that can, and will, have such a lasting and profound effect on our community.
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Razer Ray
Sat, Mar 4, 2017 5:13PM
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