Their presence was unexpected, and their message equally unanticipated, considering that it had been months since the last time renter protections were brought to the Long Beach City Council floor. Better Housing for Long Beach (BHLB), not to be confused with the renters’ advocacy group Housing Long Beach (HLB), is a new grassroots organization that was formed earlier this year, with designs of becoming a mainstay at city hall.
Their message: of course slumlords in Long Beach are a bad thing, but the rental property policies that the city has adopted and that advocates are pushing to strengthen are bad for business.
The group has turned out in a continuous trickle to city council meetings of late to challenge those positions, armed with anecdotal evidence that they could create a slippery slope.
Mayor Robert Garcia took time last month to point out that no such policy was being discussed at this time, but it hasn’t stopped the group from making their way onto the public comment list.
“I want to clarify that there is no proposal, so these proposals that are being discussed have not been discussed up here,” the mayor said in between BHLB speakers last month.
Fallout from their push against a policy—just cause eviction— that isn’t currently being discussed at the city level has led to an online battle of sorts between the two groups, with petitions being circulated by both sides asking for public support. Both groups claim that the other is spreading misinformation.
Joanie Weir, a Long Beach property owner and founding member of the group, said that while BHLB wants to rid the city of the bad actors that the city has sought to eliminate, she doesn’t believe that the effort should include what she perceives as a violation of her privacy. She’s challenged the recently codified Proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program (PRHIP), stating that properties like hers should not be subject to random inspections because she is not a slumlord.
“Why aren’t they taking all their resources and all their energy and going into the crime-ridden buildings and the problem buildings and take care of that,” Weir said. “It’s a better use of their money and it’s better for Long Beach.”
The process, which involves randomized annual inspections by the city in an effort to maintain the city’s housing stock as well as cite any possible habitability issues, was formally codified last year. Weir’s group’s site states that the the practice is “aggressive and scary” that it “violates human rights” and gives the local government too much power. She contends that similar policies have played an outsized role in Los Angeles' massive homeless population but refrained from providing an exact figure.
A release circulated by the group on social media tapped HLB Executive Director Josh Butler as the one to blame for PRHIP, although Butler had petitioned the city for a much stronger rent escrow program that would target slumlords. REAP was never discussed by the council, and its decision last year to codify PRHIP was largely seen as a consolation to what Butler’s group had advocated for.
The program is in its first full year of codified existence and has inspected approximately 6,800 units. To date, those inspections have yielded about 2,300 cases being opened, according to a spokesperson from the city’s department development services, which includes the PRHIP program.
The 6,800 units represents a small fraction of the housing stock under the jurisdiction of PRHIP, which currently only examines rental properties with four or more units, the same threshold required for a landlord to obtain a business license from the city to operate. It’s sustained by annual fees assessed by the city ranging from $230-$290 per parcel.
While a portion of the ordinance does allow for the city to acquire warrants to enter premises, the inspections are largely voluntary unless there is a noticeable habitability issue observed. The department stressed that any information sought during that process, usually a name and a phone number, is purely voluntary and only needed for follow ups to ensure that repairs to the units have been made.
Butler said it’s too early to assess the effectiveness of the program, one that’s supposed to be carried out with more data collection to avoid double counting that may have occurred in the past. While he backed away from characterizing the unfolding dialogue between the two groups as a “battle,” he asked whether they’re truly open to finding a solution.
“Last year when REAP was being discussed, and it never made it to the council floor, landlords were opposed to that program and that program was designed specifically to go after the worst of the very worst,” Butler said. “They say they want to work on something but they oppose absolutely everything.”
A video released last week by HLB used a montage of the speakers repeated warnings to city council that it [just cause eviction] “may sound good on paper” with Butler’s group adding “because it is.” Butler reiterated the mayor’s point that while his group has had internal discussions about a possible ordinance, nothing official has been discussed.
Several cities in California including Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego have just-cause eviction ordinances that protect tenants from warrantless evictions. Those ordinances generally disallow evictions of long-term tenants who are protected classes of citizens or are terminally ill and other factors.
However, the ordinances do allow for evictions for failure to pay rent, violations if material terms of tenancy has been violated, the tenant has caused damage beyond normal wear and tear, violated cease and desist orders and other reasons like the landlord needs the unit for their personal occupancy or for a family member. They do not protect drug dealers and pedophiles from evictio,n as several members of the BHLB group have contended.
Butler says that having such an ordinance here would create stability for the nearly 60 percent of residents in the city who are renters—renters who, according to Butler, will invest in their communities if they’re allowed to stay in place. He said it will simultaneously protect tenants and their landlords who will still retain their right to evict those who breach contracts or fail to pay.
Weir thinks that it will only lead to more and more government intrusion into small business owners’ operations. She said all the protections renters need already exist and that the corresponding fees associated with PRHIP and future programs will only be passed along to tenants, defeating the purpose of Butler’s efforts to create stability for renters.
“He’s [Butler] got to understand what he’s doing, he may not even be conscious that he’s actually driving the rents up by these ordinances because all the landlords are afraid of what’s coming,” Weir said.
What is coming, is a series of discussions hosted by Mayor Garcia that will provide a forum for all sides of the community to come together and have their concerns about the housing situation in the city heard. Garcia announced the meetings in an email to supporters last month titled "An Economy That Benefits Everyone."
The three meetings come in the wake of a series of development announcements that will seem the downtown area become home to several more luxury apartment complexes. The meeting will focus on affordable housing, how to create more and what can be done to maintain affordable housing that already exists.
“Our diversity is a strength and to support that diversity, I want to ensure we build and maintain quality and affordable workforce housing,” Garcia’s message stated. “In addition, we need to ensure that housing that is already affordable for our seniors and others, stays affordable in the future.”
Butler said that announcement showed great leadership, as Garcia will become the highest elected official in the city to broach this topic on this kind of level. The mayor’s meetings are broken up into three separate categories for advocates, community members and developers. Both Butler and Weir and their respective groups are sure to attend, continuing the war of words and ideas that began last month.
“We want to educate the community about a responsible renters ordinance and what just cause eviction protections would provide for our communities, how it would benefit landlords and how it would benefit tenants,” Butler said. “If this other group wants to battle us, they can go ahead and battle. We’re not battling anyone; we’re educating the community about what we want to get done. I ask them, what are they educating about, what do they want to get done, how are they going to make things better for Long Beach?”
The three Mayor’s Roundtables are scheduled for Monday September 19 (6:00 to 7:00PM) at Mark Twain Library Community Room, Saturday September 24 (10:00AM-1:00PM) at the Jenny Oropeza Community Center at Cesar Chavez Park and Friday October 14 (1:00 to 2:00PM) at the Michelle Obama Library.