San Pablo tenants are struggling to stay. But is it safe?

Should local governments step in to prevent tenants from being displaced when California’s old rental supply needs renovating?

The San Pablo City Council spent hours debating that question Tuesday night after a group of residents and advocates begged them to intervene in the eviction of several pending tenants. from an apartment building built in 1967.

One of those tenants, Anita Mendoza, has lived in the 14-unit apartment complex at 2235 Church Lane for 28 years. She paid $450 for the one-bedroom apartment where she raised her daughter, who eventually moved home while attending school.

The area caregiver for 55-year-olds and children admits her rent is much lower than market rate apartments in San Pablo and the rest of the Bay Area. And she’s grateful for that.

“I have been a loyal and consistent tenant for several years,” said Mendoza, one of only seven households remaining in the building. “I single-handedly raised my daughter here and built relationships.”

But Mendoza’s time at the Porto Apartments may be limited, as she and her neighbors face a nearly $1,000 increase in rent.

Through a series of letters placed in the mailbox and taped to the apartment door as of November 22, the property owner Martin Gonzalez gave the tenant until January 15 to vacate – 60 days before he planned to renovate the building he bought in 2019.

SAN PABLO, CA – JANUARY 20: Anita Mendoza, left, with daughter Janelly Briseno and their dog Rocke pose for a photo in the living room at the Porto Apartments parking lot in San Pablo, California, on Thursday, January 20 2022. Mendoza She said, who has lived there for the past 28 years, is facing eviction from her home after a new owner took over and increased the rent by at least $1000 a month as a part of the apartment renovation. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

Gonzalez, who also owns and operates La Strada, an Italian restaurant on the same lot, did not respond to a request for an interview.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, he told the council he needed to replace fail-safe appliances, remove mold and termites, replace outdated wiring and fix plumbing – characterize those upgrades that are necessary for the unit’s safety and livability.

To pay for that necessary work, Gonzalez said, he would have to increase his rent.

Families who have stayed at Apartments Porto since first being notified have been offered the opportunity to re-rent there once the repairs are completed, but the new rent will be $1,500 for a one-room apartment. bed and $2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, or about three times what tenants are currently paying.

Gonzalez said he hasn’t charged rent since November, allowing tenants to save money before having to temporarily relocate.

“Two years ago, I bought substandard residential apartments,” says Gonzalez. “I’m committed to fixing the flats and putting them on the code.”

The homeowner’s testimony caused the council to vote 3-2 to reject it Propose an emergency decree that would prohibit tenants like Gonzalez from being evicted through no fault of their own, in this case for “substantial rehabilitation,” even though California strict tenant protection laws.

According to the city, 5,700 households rent in San Pablo – 66% of total households. Nearly half of the city’s 9,100 inhabited housing units are multifamily.

Questions about tenant safety were at the heart of the council’s discussion, weeks after a massive fire killed 19 people in a New York City high-rise apartment – the third worst fire in the United States for four decades.

City staff indicate that more than two-thirds of the housing units in San Pablo are built before 1980, including shelters for workers at the Richmond shipyards during World War II.

SAN PABLO, CA – JANUARY 20: Anita Mendoza arrives at her apartment at Porto Apartments in San Pablo, California, on Thursday, January 20, 2022. Mendoza, who has lived there for the past 28 years, she said. , is facing eviction after a new owner took over and raised the rent by at least $1000 per month as part of a condo renovation. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

Therefore, some of them can use some repair if they are not well maintained.

Councilor Elizabeth Pabon-Alvarado said: “He’s trying not to be a thug and doesn’t really care about these things. “We have to credit him a lot, and I’m going to credit him a lot now.”

However, Councilmember Patricia Ponce supported the emergency ordinance, saying that without it, she was concerned the no-fault relocation would continue to put vulnerable populations at high risk of displacement. and become homeless.

“This apartment is much bigger than the Porto Apartments, this is about us still living in the time of COVID,” says Ponce. “I know we’re worried about fading in our city and our landlords aren’t investing in their properties – I get it – but here’s why we need to work together. to find a balanced approach to all of this.”

Documentary about San Pablo’s Building Services Public Portal issued permits raise questions about whether the renovation work Gonzalez intends to do is qualified to do so.

Single license released in June 2021, for the address of Porto Apartments lists several repairs: “remodeling” 14 kitchens, counters, cabinets and appliances, and “replacing” 14 new tubs and partitions, new side panels and sockets, New lights, 42 windows and patio doors, built-in oven and exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom.

City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland discouraged council members from delving deeper into the condition of Gonzalez’s apartments because an attorney representing his tenants was also on the Zoom call.

Mendoza said the meeting was the first time she heard about the apartment building’s glaring problems, leading her to think they were exaggerated.

Now, she has no way to fight the eviction but to take the owner to court.

“I’m frustrated and angry about what happened yesterday,” Mendoza said, adding that the owner first tried to push tenants out in 2019, before state eviction units at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic abandoned that plan. “We don’t know when they will come and push us out.”

SAN PABLO, CA – JANUARY 20: Anita Mendoza stands at the Porto Apartments parking lot in San Pablo, California, on Thursday, January 20, 2022. Mendoza, who has lived there for the past 28 years, she said, is faced eviction after a new owner took over and raised the rent by at least $1,000 per month as part of a condo renovation. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

For tenant advocates, disputes like the one involving Porto Apartments represent a “loophole” in California law that allows landlords to use evictions to raise rents later.

State law requires that a “substantial renovation” involves an upgrade to a building’s structural, electrical, plumbing, or mechanical systems, requires a local government permit, and cannot done in a reasonable and safe manner with the tenants inside. Such improvements may require tenants to vacate the property for at least 30 days.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of Coalition of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), which represents the remaining tenants of Porto Apartments, said landlords are known to define “significant restoration” to simultaneously upgrade apartments and value occupants. .

Simon-Weisberg, is an adjunct professor at UC Hastings College of Law and represent Moms 4 Housing in court, also indicates that any relocation due to repairs is deemed temporary and the original rent must be re-provided.

Unfortunately, adds Simon-Weisberg, “the law is so written that it’s perfectly possible for someone to lie, and there’s nothing we can do about it. What’s the point of having a rent cap, meaning you can’t increase rent above 9%, when you can get rid of it and increase it to 500%? It’s happening in all the places that don’t have their own local ordinances. The state can fix this and we hope they will, but until then, each community needs to close this loophole as well.”

Although the San Pablo City Council voted against an ordinance, faultless ordinances are not uncommon. There are 15 of them in the Bay Area alone, including neighboring Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond.

City Manager Matt Rodriguez acknowledged the loophole in the 2019 state law at a meeting Tuesday and noted that there is a bill working through the Legislature to address that.

“There will be an opportunity for the city to support state law,” said Rodriguez. “But in terms of direct interference, it’s usually a censorship process that we’re not involved in.”

Instead, Jenny Kauffman, a city management analyst in charge of San Pablo’s housing programs, and Oscar Davalos, the city’s lead official, highlight the state-funded programs available to help displaced tenants, including financial assistance.

But Simon-Weisberg argues that post-eviction assistance – usually as little as a month or two of rent – does not cover the cost of moving and finding new affordable housing.

“It’s sad that we’ve lost so many tenants, because this economy won’t recover without anyone doing any of the work,” she said. “I think (some members of the council) want their little town to be Walnut Creek, and they’re perfectly fine if it’s with the support of all the people who have built that wonderful little community in the 30s. last year.” San Pablo tenants are struggling to stay. But is it safe?

Huynh Nguyen

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