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Mobile Home Rent Stabilization Ordinance revamped in favor of tenants
Recap of the Sebastopol City Council meeting of Sept. 5
All council members were present at the Sept. 5 Sebastopol City Council meeting, including Mayor Neysa Hinton, Vice Mayor Diana Rich, Councilmember Sandra Maurer, Councilmember Jill McLewis, and Councilmember Stephen Zollman.
A long debate over an amendment to the Mobile Home Rent Stabilization Ordinance took up most of the city council meeting on Sept. 5. Before that discussion came the release of the electrification survey results, a presentation on tenant rights, and more.
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Public comment for items not on the agenda: Frequent commentor Kyle Falbo complained about the crosswalk and sidewalk work recently done at Bodega Avenue and Robinson Road, which he characterized as hazardous.
(Note: The consent calendar consists of items that are routine in nature or don’t require additional discussion, often because they’ve been discussed extensively at a previous council meeting.)
In addition to approving the minutes for previous meetings, the council received the results of the Electrification Survey, sponsored by the Climate Action Committee this spring. They also authorized city staff to recruit for a citizen representative to the SCTA Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Here are the key takeaways from the Electrification Survey:
Awareness that new technologies exist is fairly high, but the details about them are not well understood.
Cost is the primary barrier to implementing electrification.
Reliability of the electrical grid, especially during power shut-offs, is a concern. Dependable electricity supply needs to be assured.
Contractors and installer acceptance are the key to selling the change.
Consumers confuse the cost of electric appliances of the past with the new electric options. These new options are four times the efficiency of standard electric resistance heating and twice the efficiency of air conditioning units from 20 years ago, thereby reducing operating costs considerably.
Financial options to help consumers are not easily accessed.
Many responses suggest that citizens believe that the City of Sebastopol is the initiator of retiring the gas infrastructure.
You can find the full draft results of the electrification survey here.
The council heard two presentations at this week’s meeting: one on the change of the URL for the city website and another from Legal Aid on eviction protections for tenants.
cityofsebastopol.gov. The city of Sebastopol will be moving to a new .gov domain name: cityofsebastopol.gov. This will affect both the city website and city email address formats. According to administrative director Anna Kwong, “This change will make it easier for the public to identify our official communication and will give them greater confidence that any information that we see from us is legitimate. We will be implementing this change as tentatively planned for October 2023.”
Eviction protections for tenants. Margaret De Matteo, Legal Aid of Sonoma County gave a short presentation, urging the city to adopt stricter tenant protections, including a just-cause eviction ordinance similar to that passed by Petaluma, a rental registry, and rent stabilization (otherwise known as rent control). She noted that 50% of the people who live in Sebastopol are renters.
“If we want to stop the bleeding on the cost of housing, it’s going to require action,” she said.
“Renters tend to be precariously housed, and they share a high cost burden, which has been well documented,” De Matteo continued. “A rental registry alone isn’t going to protect people, so some of the things we advocate for are rent stabilization and just-cause eviction protections. Rent stabilization is something you’re about to discuss for mobile home residents, and I would urge you to consider it for regular tenants in multi-family housing and single-family homes.”
De Matteo said the cost of setting up a rental registry in Petaluma was $33,000, plus $100,000 in annual maintenance costs, but said that cost could be passed on to landlords in the shape of rental registration fees.
“Once you have a rental registry, you know what’s really going on with your rental market,” she said.
She noted that while a rental registry was a good first step, “It’s not really very effective unless it’s paired with some other tenant protections and unless the landlords are required to register and there’s some sort of penalty for not registering.”
A rental registry would allow the city to track evictions based on landlord claims that they were taking the unit off the market or moving back in themselves. These are the most common no-fault reasons for evicting tenants. But there is currently no way to see if landlords are actually following through.
DeMatteo said that in 2022 there were 30 households in the 95472 zip code area evicted. There are roughly 50,000 people in that zip code area, including approximately 7,500 Sebastopol residents.
The council asked her to send them information on how many of those were in Sebastopol, so they could gauge whether this was a serious problem for the city of Sebastopol.
Public Hearing: Amendments to the Mobile Home Rent Stabilization Ordinance
On Tuesday night, the council amended its Mobile Home Rent Stabilization Ordinance after outcry from the residents of Fircrest Mobile Home Park, who saw their rent raised by 6% this year, a huge jump from previous years.
That rise, however, was in line with Sebastopol’s existing Mobile Home Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which allowed for an annual rent increase of the 100% of the Bay Area Consumer Price Index or 6%.
For the mostly elderly residents of Fircrest, many of whom are on fixed incomes, that was too much.
Starting this spring, the city of Sebastopol received emails, phone calls, and petitions from Fircrest Mobile Home Park residents, asking the city to amend the ordinance to limit annual rent increases to no more that 50% of the Bay Area Consumer Price Index with a cap of 4%.
The owners wanted to leave the ordinance as it was.
Over the ensuing months, the city held stakeholder meetings with both residents and the owners, but the two sides couldn’t come to a compromise.
So city staff created a compromise proposal – an amendment to the current mobile home park ordinance that would restrict rent increases to 75% of the CPI or 4%, whichever was less. In addition, city staff suggested partial vacancy decontrol, allowing the owners to, in the case of the sale of a unit, raise the rent on the mobile home space by 10%. In the rare case of the total replacement of a mobile home, the owners could raise the rent by an unlimited amount.
Mayor Hinton’s first question was whether the city could put a moratorium on rent increases at mobile home parks, which is what the county did earlier this year. City Attorney Larry McLaughlin advised that since that wasn’t the proposal before them—and since there had not been public notice of such a proposal in any way—they could not do that.
It was an initial shot across the bow, however, and presaged that the council was going to be more sympathetic to the plight of the tenants than the plight of the owners.
The council chamber was crowded with residents of Fircrest Mobile Home Park, as well as five members of the Musser family, owners of park.
The Musser family maintained that they had to at least be allowed to raise the rent in line with 100% of the Bay Area Consumer Price Index. One by one, they appeared at the podium, making the same case they’d made in a Sept. 1 letter to they’d sent to the city.
“It’s critical that the council members keep clearly in mind that the Park is two things: a place providing residents with a desirable and affordable place to live and a business which must function economically in a sustainable manner. Like all businesses, the Park must be able to cover its expenses with revenue, and if the former [i.e., expenses] rise with inflation… revenue must rise as well.”
They argued that this year’s 6% rent increase was a one-time rarity, caused by the spike in inflation, and asked that the ordinance not be changed, except for the 10% vacancy decontrol.
Beneath their words was a threat that if they went out of business or were forced to sell, the park might be taken over by less community-minded owners.
As they wrote in their letter to the council, “Excessive regulation of rent levels has led to ugly consequences and could eventually lead to the sale to another entity, such as a private equity firm, something now occurring throughout the country and often accompanied by restrictive rules, changes and evictions. Alternatively, some parks may in this situation close and convert the land to other uses.”
A steady stream of Fircrest residents spoke as well, declaring how much they loved Fircrest, but often complaining about what they described as lackluster maintenance (though some said that had improved under the new manager). The residents of the park reiterated how difficult the 6% increase had been for a population that lived primarily on fixed incomes.
One speaker, Karin Lease, put her finger on the crux of the issue.
“What I'm seeing is how we're going to find common ground between people who are trying to maintain their profit margin and maybe increase it and people who, many of us low income, are just trying to survive,” she said. “We're worried about becoming homeless ... So how do we find common ground? I don't want to hurt the family. I don't want them to suffer, like I do, with low income.”
She laughed slightly at the impossibility of that thought, then looked directly at the Musser family. “If you make $100,000 to $300,000 a year, it might be hard for you to understand how scary it is to wonder if you're going to have enough money to pay your bills. And if you're going to have a home at all—I'm not exaggerating. At Fircrest, many people and especially elders, are in this situation.”
Her gaze shifted back to the council, “So we're asking for rent relief so we can stay in our homes in a community that we love, where we feel connected and safe and stable rather than becoming homeless or leaving the community.”
This plea and others like it did not fall on deaf ears on the council, who after several back and forths, upped the ante in favor of the tenants and landed on the following: limiting rent increases to 3% per year or 75% of the Bay Area CPI, whichever was less. They also allowed a 10% increase in the case of a vacancy.
It was a four-to-one vote, with Jill McLewis dissenting. Sandra Maurer, who’d initially opposed this compromise because she wanted zero vacancy decontrol, relented at the end and voted in favor with the majority of Rich, Hinton and Zollman.
Several members of the Musser family gasped audibly at this decision.
CEQA and Vehicle Miles Traveled
In their final piece of business for the evening, the council received a report on a change to the way California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) tracks a development’s traffic impacts. Going forward they will be measured in terms of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), a metric that accounts for the number of vehicle trips generated and the length or distance of those trips, instead of Vehicle Level of Service (LOS), a measure of roadway capacity. According to the staff report, the switch to the VMT metric will enable the city to more closely align CEQA transportation analysis with policies related to sustainability and climate.
Watch the full meeting here. The next city council will be on Tuesday, September 19 at 6 pm at the Sebastopol Youth Annex, 425 Morris St., Sebastopol
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