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El Cerrito has become the latest city to drop an ordinance forcing landlords to justify tenant evictions after a California landlord interest group shelled out more than $30,000 to kill it before taking effect.
Under the ordinance, which the City Council approved on May 21, more than 100 landlords in the city would have had to cite a cause for evicting tenants and would have been prohibited from harassing or retaliating against them. The ordinance also would have created a registry for rental properties.
But before the law could kick in, the California Apartment Association poured $30,391.50 into a signature-gathering initiative to block it, according to California Fair Political Practices Commission filings. Within about two weeks, opponents already gathered enough signatures validated by the Contra Costa County elections office to force the City Council to either repeal the ordinance or submit it to voters.
On July 31, the council voted 4-1 with Mayor Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto dissenting to repeal the ordinance. Council members reasoned that a ballot measure would cost too much for a law that affects relatively few people in a city of about 25,000 an estimated $81,000-$114,000 for a special election and $20,000-$49,000 for a regularly scheduled election date.
Council member Paul Fadelli said at that meeting the council was put in a corner.
A second vote must be taken to formally repeal the ordinance, scheduled for Aug. 20.
The California Apartment Association used the same strategy to stall Richmond’s rent control ordinance in 2015. After the group qualified enough signatures to force the issue there, the council ended up repealing the ordinance. But about a year later it placed a slightly different rent control ordinance on the ballot that passed, prompting the California Apartment Association to file an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2017.
The California Apartment Association also led a campaign in Concord earlier this year that successfully pressured the council to not consider just-cause eviction and rent control policies. In addition, it has battled with tenant advocates over rent control in Santa Rosa, where after the council there approved a 3 percent annual rent cap in 2016 it launched a petition drive to block enactment. The rent cap proposal went before voters in summer 2017 and failed.
On the state level, the group is fighting a rent cap bill that also includes a just cause eviction provision.
Pardue-Okimoto said in an interview she was shocked the California Apartment Association put so much time, energy and money into defeating what she and others consider a modest just-cause ordinance. She said she wanted it to extend to more renters, but the council struck a compromise by having it apply only to properties with five or more units built before 2015. It would have allowed landlords to evict tenants who engage in illegal activity, fail to pay rent or breach their rental agreement.
About 40 percent of El Cerrito’s population rents, according to a May city report.
Every time I meet someone, they’re worried about their rent going up and worried about ending up on the street or having to move out of the area, Pardue-Okimoto said. I was trying to do my best to help those people, and it makes me really sad that this big organization with lots of money came in and really stomped on people that need help.
Joshua Howard, California Apartment Association’s senior vice president for Northern California, said in a written statement the group opposes just-cause eviction laws because of their negative impacts on rental properties and the community at large.
These laws make it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to evict problem tenants, Howard said, including those involved in criminal enterprises, such as drug dealing or gang activity, because proving that often requires testimony from other residents, which is understandably difficult to come by.
The California Apartment Association’s Issues Committee is one of the organization’s political action committees and has spent a total of $167,514 this year, according to Secretary of State campaign finance records.
In addition to the $30,391.50 spent on the El Cerrito referendum, it contributed $125,000 to Citizens for Affordable Housing, a coalition of organizations and developers that the California Apartment Association formed to fight rent control initiatives in Sacramento. The council in that city is scheduled to vote Tuesday on an ordinance placing a 10 percent annual cap on rent increases and other tenant protections.
Sasha Harnden, a policy advocate for Sacramento-based anti-poverty group the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said in an interview the California Apartment Association is one of the top two most powerful groups in the state representing landlord interests, along with the California Association of Realtors.
“These landlord interests have so much power over our elected representatives,” Harnden said.
Pardue-Okimoto and Fadelli both alleged they encountered signature collectors who misled signers about what the petition was for, even suggesting it would help stop crime.
Sherry Drobner, an organizer with El Cerrito Progressives a group that rallied in support of the ordinance â€” said in an interview that a signature gatherer wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt told her the petition was to put rent control on the ballot. When she realized it was actually for the referendum, she posted about the encounter on social media.
“So many people contacted me after because they had signed the petition thinking it was something positive for renters,” she said.
Howard stood by the veracity of signature gatherers.
“The signature gatherers were equipped with the information needed to explain the referendum to voters and they’re required to explain the measure fairly; we have no reason to believe this did not happen,” Howard said in an email.
It’s important to remember, too, that voters presented with a petition have the right and the duty to read it before signing. If afterward a voter thinks he or she made a mistake, that voter has avenues for removing the signature before the petition is submitted,” he added.
The petition language says it’s a referendum against the just-cause eviction ordinance. Though the petition lists the name of the ordinance, it only describes it as accelerated to termination of tenancy and other tenant protections.”