Council gives renters a lifeline with proposed ordinance to close eviction loopholes

In a victory for Long Beach renters, the City Council on Tuesday night unanimously directed the city attorney to prepare an emergency ordinance that would close a so-called loophole in a new state housing law that has left tenants citywide facing evictions.

Under the Tenant Protection Act, which went into effect Jan.1, renters can be evicted through no fault of their own if landlords say they intend to substantially remodel their units.

Although the law requires landlords to obtain government building permits proving that renovations are more than cosmetic, such as paint and minor repairs, it does not say at what point in the eviction process those permits must be pulled and shown to residents.

Tenant-rights activists have argued that this ambiguity lets landlords evict renters without first proving that the renovations meet the thresholds set by the new state law.

Renters and housing advocates erupted in cheers after the council’s 8-0 vote, which directs the  city attorney to draft an ordinance requiring that landlords obtain permits—and show them to tenants—before serving eviction notices. The advocates had expected a divided vote, especially after 9th District Councilman Rex Richardson’s proposed affordable housing bond was shot down last month.

Alex Flores, one of three housing attorneys with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who spoke before the council, called the proposed ordinance a modest ask, considering it would not include fines for violations.

“Right now what we are seeing is entire buildings being handed notices which say only two words: substantial remodel,” Flores said. “At the same time we’re seeing that certain landlords are not pulling a single permit, are showing no indication of actually doing remodeling. The problem is that the longer we wait the more people are going to be evicted.”

Anke Zwirner-Curtis, a German immigrant who lives in Long Beach with her husband, a history professor at Cal State Long Beach, said they were shocked when they found out they were being evicted from their Rose Park apartment under the substantial remodel clause.

“We have double-incomes, no kids, so for us it’s OK,” said Zwirner-Curtis, who will be moving out with her husband to their new place next week. “But what about all the other people in their house, in their neighborhoods, who don’t have that. Living in Long Beach is not affordable anymore.”

Tuesday’s measure was introduced by 1st District Councilwoman Mary Zendejas who, along with her colleagues, has sat through multiple council meetings since the start of the year during which renters facing evictions due to substantial remodeling pleaded for the city’s intervention.

The council also approved an amendment from 2nd District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce to make the proposed ordinance retroactive to Jan. 1 to include eviction proceedings under the new state law against tenants who have not yet been forced to leave their units.

A vote on the proposed ordinance itself has been set for Feb. 18.

Zendejas, introducing her first council action since being elected last November, said a local ordinance would help clarify the state law and make sure landlords are complying with it.

“It really breaks my heart to see how many children are among these numbers” of families facing eviction, she said. “That’s what I’m really concerned about, uprooting the children from their homes.”

Zendejas, a renter herself, acknowledged that if she were to be told to move within 60 days, she would be unable to come up with enough money for the standard first and last month’s rent and deposit.

“If I’m not able to do that, I can understand how it would be a burden for these folks as well,” Zendejas said.

While there is no official city data on the number of tenants affected by this “renovations” portion of the law, Zendejas said she counted nine cases in her district, six in the 2nd District, one in the 4th District and three cases in the 6th District that her office has been made aware of.

Housing advocates previously identified about 25 units citywide where tenants are facing evictions, with another 50 units being threatened under the substantial remodeling clause.

Joshua Christian, a housing attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, speaks before the City Council in support of a proposed ordinance that would close a loophole in a new state housing law that has been used by landlords to evict tenants citywide. The council approved drafting the local ordinance during its meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by Jason Ruiz.

Under the state’s Tenant Protection Act, landlords are required to pay relocation assistance of $1,000 or waive the last month’s rent for a tenant being evicted, which could be less if renters pay less. These amounts are far less than those briefly mandated by the city last year before the new law went into effect.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, 3rd District Councilwoman Suzie Price suggested that eviction notices be sent out midway through the process of obtaining a permit, rather than after. But that amendment was defeated after Director of Development Services Linda Tatum said it is not uncommon for plans to be submitted but never completed.

Typically, the timeframe to obtain a permit is four to eight weeks, along with hundreds to thousands of dollars in administrative fees, Tatum said. The process includes city staff reviewing and accepting submitted plans, checking them and then issuing building permits once fees are paid.

Real estate lobbyist Mike Murchison, who was one of only two people who spoke out against the proposed ordinance, criticized the council’s lack of communication with property owners and management companies before putting the item on the agenda.

Murchison previously told the Post that landlords don’t typically know what kind of work is needed until tenants leave, however, council and staff pointed out that lease agreements typically allow such inspections to take place while units are occupied given proper notice.

Mayor Robert Garcia, despite having no vote in the matter, threw his support behind the item, calling it a way to ensure property owners are pulling proper permits and a way to assist those who may be low-income, undocumented or without the resources to defend themselves.

“I think to me it’s very common sense,” Garcia said. “To me it aligns with the spirit of what the state is trying to do and whether folks agree or not agree, I think that’s the law in front of us and the spirit of the law rightfully aligns with what this proposal is.”

Eighth District Councilman Al Austin, a co-signer on the measure, was absent during the meeting.

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.
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