Just cause rule moves forward

09/12/2018

As her rent skyrockets and her neighbors face eviction, Louise Gilbert fears the trajectory she sees for herself as a renter in San Anselmo. “I’m rooted here and want to remain here. If I would have to move elsewhere, I don’t know what I would do,” she said during a workshop on Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors explored the idea of a just-cause ordinance. After three hours, the board voted to direct staff to draft an ordinance. 

Yet many landlords protested the idea on Tuesday, saying a policy that makes it more difficult to evict tenants would in turn lead to more stringent background checks and a decrease in the housing supply if property owners opt for short-term rentals instead.

Just-cause policies are designed to ensure that landlords present a reason for evicting tenants. They eliminate no-cause evictions, in which landlords can simply serve a notice to vacate without stating a cause. Should a tenant fail to pay rent, violate the terms of a lease or engage in criminal activity, for example, landlords may evict them. No-fault evictions, in which tenants are asked to leave for reasons beyond their control, such as when a landlord moves into the unit, are also untouched by just-cause policies. 

In unincorporated Marin, 31 percent of households are renters. Countywide, roughly 19,000 people are rent-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2015, a county survey found that 45 percent of 800 tenant respondents were concerned with the security and stability of their rental homes; 58 percent were worried about rent increases and evictions. 

There are many ways to implement just-cause policies. The ordinance could apply to selective kinds of rentals—excluding, for example, junior accessory dwelling units—or cover all rentals. In some jurisdictions, landlords are now required to offer tenant protections, such as relocation benefits, for certain no-fault evictions. 

Debbie La Rue, a planner with the Marin County Community Development Agency’s housing division, said a policy would most likely be enforced through a complaint-based system, in which tenants would be responsible for pursing violations in court. 

The county is also hoping to put data collection provisions into the ordinance to gather information about evictions and rent increases, as the county currently records no such information. Data collection could also bolster enforcement; if an owner evicts a tenant by claiming that he or she will be moving into the unit, for example, but then puts the unit back on the market two months later, the system could flag that.

“In the state of California, right now, landlords can give tenants a notice to move for no reason at all; they just need to give them a 30- or 60-day notice,” said Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California. “For renters, it doesn’t provide any stability. And there are all the things associated with that: kids who can stay in the same education system, people who can be closer to their jobs.”

Yet Joby Tapia, a secretary for the Marin Rental Property Association, believes just-cause is unfair to landlords “and a little biased [in favor of] renters.” “Sometimes things just don’t work out between people—a 60-day notice allows you to part ways without significant legal costs. I’ve managed properties for 20 years in just-cause eviction areas, and what you end up having is really good tenants who become uncomfortable and eventually leave apartments because they get frustrated with the inability to deal with a nuisance tenant who goes up to the line of a just-cause eviction, but doesn’t cross it.” 

Perhaps above all, landlords and property owners fear that just-cause policies could pave the way for rent control. There are more than 12 counties and cities in California that currently have just-cause policies, and 15 cities with rent stabilization laws. But just-cause policies themselves do not prevent landlords from raising rents. 

That fact has frustrated renters, who see steep rent hikes as a convenient way for landlords to get around formal evictions. “What is the point of just-cause without rent control, if you can just raise the rent beyond what the tenant can pay?” asked Anna Henderson, an East Bay resident whose grandfather lives in the San Geronimo Valley, at an informational meeting held by the county at the community center last Wednesday. In Marin, landlords can increase rents to any degree they want as long as they give a tenant adequate notice.

The county does have a new mediation ordinance, which allows a landlord or tenant to request mandatory mediation with the other party after a rent increase greater than 5 percent. While Ms. La Rue said the program, which began in January, has led to successful compromises, none of its 12 mediations have eliminated a rent increase. 

“I don’t believe the supervisors are in favor of rent control, and I don’t believe that’s going to happen—especially because there’s a rent mediation ordinance,” Ms. Peattie, who is herself a landlord, said. “While [just-cause] might not be as strong for the tenant as having rent control, it’s certainly better than not having anything in place.”

She added, “Landlords often feel that this is their business, their property—they’d like to be able to do what they feel is right. The fact is, from my perspective, I think that the least we can do as landlords is to give somebody a justifiable reason as to why we’re asking them to move. It’s very, very difficult to prove that a housing provider is asking a tenant to move in retaliation or because they’re discriminating against the tenant.”

Laurie Joyce, a network coordinator at Legal Aid of Marin, said that every week a half-dozen people come to her office seeking help with no-cause eviction notices. She believes that most of those take place when landlords “want to do remodeling and jack the rents up.”

Mr. Tapia disagreed. “Most often [no-cause evictions] are because the tenant is creating a nuisance, something is happening where the other tenants are being disrupted or made to feel uncomfortable, or there’s habitual poor behavior,” he said. 

Ultimately, said Suzanne Sadowsky, chair of the San Geronimo Affordable Housing Association, just-cause “is just one little step. But we really need to create more housing. And we’re in a bind because there are so many barriers to it having to do with land use—and, of course, in West Marin a major issue is the septic situation and the cost associated with building and housing.” 

Currently, over 80 percent of land in the county is dedicated to parkland, open space and agriculture, contributing to the difficultly of building affordable housing in West Marin. And the housing that does exist is often unavailable for families, seniors, and the local workforce: county planner Leelee Thomas noted that the rise of short-term rentals in homes that were previously rented long term has only squeezed the rental market tighter. Purchasing homes has also become increasingly difficult, as the rate of unoccupied homes in the county is .6 percent. Thus, even those renters who are willing and financially able to purchase homes are unable to do so, which further saturates the rental market.  

Charisma Douglass, a San Rafael resident, said one of the biggest issues she faces as a renter is discrimination: something housing advocates and renters say is difficult to prove in court, and which they hope just-cause could help mitigate. “I’m a caregiver—all my clients are rich, older white people—and the first thing they [do] is stereotype Hispanics and black people,” said Ms. Douglass, who is black. “When we move here, they think we’re going to bring down the value of the property.” 

Once, when a client said this to her face, Ms. Douglass informed the woman that she had moved to the area to give her sons, who are 19 and 10, a chance at a better life. Now, after being served a 90-day no-cause eviction, she is looking to move to Nevada, where she said there are more than five times as many units available. 

On Tuesday, Supervisor Katie Rice cautioned temperance. “It’s been raised more than once that just-cause is neither the monster some think it might be in the landlord community, or a panacea for tenants who, by virtue of being renters, don’t have any source of tenant protections or the stability that someone who own their own home has,” she said. 

Now Ms. Rice and county staff will have to consider just-cause’s specific applicability in Marin. For example, Ms. Rice said that she didn’t think just-cause should apply to smaller rental properties, like accessory dwelling units or apartment complexes with only three-to-four units, as she believed such units were usually owned by mom-and-pop landlords. 

But Ms. La Rue pointed out that many single-family dwellings could be owned by investors. 

“When we look at exempting any sort of unit…you really have to be careful and examine what the implications might be,” she said. “We are trying to create a more economically and racially integrated community because we want all families to live in areas of opportunity. Would we be accidently creating a disincentive for certain families to move to those areas if they could be evicted for no cause? They might decide on their own to move to a different community.”