These initiatives are part of a list of options the city council will discuss on Monday, as it considers ways to support local tenants, who make up about 45% of the city’s population. Other components include increased resettlement assistance that landlords must provide to displaced tenants and the adoption of a “fair chance” law that limits landlords’ ability to ask about applicants’ criminal history.
The city launched its current effort to expand tenant protection three years ago, when four council members wrote a memo urging their colleagues to address the issue of tenants being forced out of the city or having to spend “exorbitant amounts of their income on housing.” Since 2011, the memo notes, average monthly rent in Palo Alto has increased by 50% while average income in Santa Clara County has increased by less than a tenth of that rate.
“These trends are clearly not sustainable,” states the memo provided by Mayor Tom Dubois, council member Lydia Koe, and former council member Karen Holman and Corey Wallbach.
These trends only worsened. According to the city, median rent in all unit types has increased 5% since 2020 and is currently $3,648 in all unit types, including 1,696 that are restricted for affordable housing.
In all, Palo Alto has about 11,754 rental units, of which 3,723 are family homes and 2,576 apartments are in large complexes of 50 or more units, according to the American Community Survey. The balance consists of duplexes, triplexes and four floors, which together account for 1,296 units, as well as in small to medium-sized apartment buildings, which account for another 4,169 units.
While Palo Alto is notorious for being affluent, survey data shows that about 41% of the city’s renters have an income of less than $75,000. Nearly three-quarters of renters in this category reported being “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Among those with an income of less than $35,000, 89.2% report being burdened with cost when it comes to housing.
For Leah Kwan, a local renter, the numbers were close to home. During a recent Human Relations Committee discussion on tenant protection, Quinn described her experience growing in an below-market unit in an apartment building near California Street. Her family, who moved to Palo Alto from San Jose, faced discrimination from the building manager and from neighbors, she said.
“We’ve lived under a different set of standards,” Cowan told the Human Relations Committee during a February forum on tenant protection. “We all know never to complain about any of the maintenance. If anything is broken. It was months before it was ever fixed.”
In 2019, Kwan’s mother received a notice that her rent would soon double. Cowan said she had to seek help from state and county representatives and from the local nonprofit LifeMoves. Kwan said she was eventually able to find a new apartment for her mother in her own building.
“I think there are a lot of families that have not been so lucky,” Quinn said. “All the other families I grew up with and knew about when I visited my mom – the only black and brown families in that whole apartment building – a lot of them moved very far away.”
But while the council widely acknowledges the high pressure many locals are under, members have struggled to come to a consensus on what to do about it. In 2017, the council discussed and eventually rejected a proposal to explore rent stability. Monday’s debate will give the current Council a chance to reconsider this decision.
Some think it’s time to do so. Angie Evans, the renter who last year helped launch the Palo Alto Renters Association, urged the Planning and Transportation Committee in April to support capping rents. She said that low-income people and people of color are harassed and unfair rent increases on a regular basis. In most cases, these incidents are not reported.
“While it sometimes seems that tenant rights are less important in an exclusive city like Palo Alto, I would like to remind us all that more expensive and separate cities like Palo Alto require tenant protection as well,” said Evans.
California lawmakers tried to tackle the issue of renter displacement in 2019, when they approved Assembly Bill 1482, which limited rent increases in any given year to 5% plus inflation. But the bill, which became law in 2020, does not apply to tenants whose units have been built within the past 15 years; who moved into their units less than a year ago; living in single family homes; And who live in a duplex where the owner lives in the other unit. Several cities, including San Francisco, Mountain View and Berkeley, have adopted protection measures beyond those of AB 1482. Palo Alto’s planning staff recommends that the city consider this approach.
However, not everyone agrees on the next steps. During hearings earlier this year, both the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Human Relations Commission recommended that the city expand some eviction protections to categories not covered by AB 1482, including newer apartment buildings. However, they disagreed on the subject of rent ceilings, with the Planning Commission opposed to any form of rent stabilization and the Human Relations Commission supported extending the anti-tamper provisions of AB 1482 to the types of housing units not covered by state law. .
In August and September, when the Human Relations Committee discussed the topic of renter assistance, members acknowledged that even tenants at the higher end of the social and economic ladder are under pressure when it comes to rising rents.
“I’ve heard that from people who rent $6,000 a month, pay it, and two months later they get a letter in the mail and want $8,000,” Reverend Caluma Smith, who chairs the Human Relations Committee, said at an August hearing. “I can only imagine when you go down the social and economic ladder, where there are no lawyers and legal defense, how badly this goes.”
Commissioner Adriana Eberl agreed and said she was “dismayed” by the planning committee’s decision not to recommend a rent cap.
“I think the truth is that in Palo Alto they use these rent increases to make people homeless, and that’s how people end up losing their homes all the time,” Eberle said.
The Planning Commission was more skeptical about adopting rent stability beyond what state law required. Commissioner Michael Alchek said the city should see how state law works before seeking additional solutions. President Bart Hechtman noted that tenants who face a potential increase in their rents of more than 5% have the option to lease in an older building that is protected by AB 1482.
One of the issues on which the two committees agreed was the need for more data. Both supported the task force’s recommendation that Palo Alto conduct a detailed survey of rental properties. While the city has had a registry of rental properties since 2002, the list has not been updated in years and the Office of Human Services has not reached out to landlords to verify the information, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Development. services.
The proposed survey will include information about rental rates, rent increases, evictions, unit sizes and current rental length, according to the report.
“Ideally, the rent survey will affect both landlords and tenants positively,” the report says. “The city can be an honest broker of data available to tenants and landlords alike. With this information, tenant and/or landlord groups can suggest new policies and/or improvements.”
The two committees also agreed to agree to staff proposals to limit the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit (this would be limited to 1.5 times rent) and to adopt a “fair chance” law – a move Berkeley, Oakland in San Francisco has already taken. City employees noted that because prison “disproportionately affects members of the Black, Indigenous, and Colored (BIPOC) community, the Fair Opportunity Act can help address racial equality goals and tenant protection goals.”
The planning staff report acknowledges that criminal history is a sensitive topic. Since landlords and property managers tend to avoid risk, “removing access to this information may be seen as increasing their risk.”
“However, the assumption that past behavior can consistently predict future behavior can perpetuate discriminatory behavior,” the report says.