Long Beach Post, April 3, 2019
by Jason Ruiz in News
Long Beach renters scored a small victory early Wednesday as the City Council voted to create an ordinance that will require landlords to provide financial assistance to those displaced by rent increases and some evictions.
The victory comes after years of failed attempts by tenant advocate groups to push the City Council to adopt stronger protections for renters like just-cause eviction, rent escrow and rent control measures. But advocates said this is a starting point to help stop mass displacement that has ravaged some parts of the city.
Under the new ordinance, which will be drafted in the coming months, rental assistance would be required when a tenant has seen their rent increase by more than 10 percent during a 12-month period.
Assistance would also be triggered if a landlord requires a tenant to vacate a unit when there was no violation of state law, including failure to pay rent, violation of lease of the lease agreement or using the premises for unlawful purposes. It would also apply to tenants displaced by remodeling.
The ordinance would require landlords to pay displaced tenants two months rent, with the value fixed to the housing authority average fair market rental rates. That amount could be anywhere from $2,706 for a studio apartment to $4,500 for a three-bedroom unit or higher.
The ordinance also will include a number of policies that aim to protect seniors and low-income tenants with vouchers and preserving housing covenants and requiring an additional $2,000 in assistance be paid to displaced seniors and residents with disabilities.
The latter could come from a funding source that has yet to be determined, but could ultimately be paid by the city.
Unlike city staff’s original recommendation that would’ve tied eligibility to a portion of the area median income, these benefits would be available to tenants of all income levels.
“When is enough, enough?” asked Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, who is currently running to fill a vacant state Senate seat.
An amendment requested by Councilman Al Austin will bring the ordinance back to the council in three years for the body to use data collected over the life of the law to decide if it should be continued. Another change from Councilman Rex Richardson created an exception to protect “mom and pop” operators by exempting landlords who own a single four-unit building or who use their rental property as their primary residence or need to vacate a unit for an immediate family member.
The vote comes on the heels of a report that was compiled by city staff over the past year that spelled out the pain that Long Beach renters are experiencing. From rents that have continued to climb over the past decade and a vacancy rate that has hit just 3.8 percent, the housing crunch has continued to tighten in the city.
“When you have over five percent (vacancy rate), people have choices—they’re able to look for multiple areas and find what makes the right choice for them,” said Assistant City Manager Tom Modica. “When you’re under five percent you have a constrained market and it becomes very difficult and often it is hard to find a place, any place, when you’re under five percent.”
Housing advocates and property owners packed the council chambers Tuesday night as the item was scrutinized by the public, and the council, for nearly six hours before a final vote. Tenants’ rights advocate groups had been critical of the original staff recommendations because they felt that there were holes that would lead to equity issues, both by the types of homes the ordinance would address and by the level of assistance someone would receive being tied to the area of the city that they live in.
The recommendation that was proposed by city staff only applied to buildings with four or more units, the threshold for which the city requires a business permit and at which the federal government considers a building multi-family housing.
But it also linked the amount of assistance to ZIP codes, meaning a person renting in Belmont Shore could receive more than a person living in cheaper parts of the city. The ordinance will now apply to all renters regardless of income.
“We’re fighting for the soul of our city,” said Long Beach Gray Panthers President Myron Wollin, whose group was part of the coalition that gave input for this policy. “The displacement that goes on is awful. What I’m seeing among the seniors is that they’re having tremendous rent increases and it’s forcing them to leave. We’ve go to do something.”
Landlords warned the council that if the ordinance passed, only private large real estate firms would be able to afford to buy rental properties in Long Beach as they would have the means to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it could cost to empty some buildings if tenant relocation assistance was required.
Mike Murchison, a lobbyist representing landlords in the city, blamed much of the recent displacement on large real estate speculation firms that bought up old multi-unit buildings to flip them for a profit, pushing out residents in the process.
He called for the council to adopt the least restrictive policy, which would only apply to buildings with 10 or more units and to residents below the area median income, and echoed the warning that this policy would only lead to more displacement like larger cities that have rent control have witnessed.
“We do not want to become Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Murchison said. “We want to become Long Beach because we’re long-term investors in our community.”
Councilmembers Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo and Daryl Supernaw unsuccessfully proposed a number of amendments to the new policy, including: raising the minimum number of units in a building affected by this ordinance to seven, extending the vesting period for qualifying as a good tenant from 12 to 24 months and restarting the clock for vesting as a good tenant after a missed payment. However, those changes are being referred to the city’s Housing and Neighborhoods Committee and could be included as amendments to the future ordinance once it is drafted.
A firm timeline on when the ordinance is due back for a first reading and vote by the council was not laid out, but multiple city officials said that a few weeks to a few months was the likely window. As the marathon meeting neared its end, the mayor expressed his regret that the city had not acted faster to protect tenants.
“We have failed to lead appropriately in the past and we have not done enough to rectify the planning mistakes that have been made, not just in our own city, but across the state,” Garcia said. “Mayors and governments are trying to, as fast as possible, try to fix and address the systemic issues that are happening.”
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.