Milpitas City Council voted to establish a rent review program at Tuesday’s city council meeting, but the city is still stuck on how to proceed with just cause evictions.

“I know the rent relief program will help with short-term shortfalls and emergencies,” said resident Allyson McDonald, president of the Sunnyhills Neighborhood Association. “But we need to address the long-term sustainability of rents.”

Originally proposed by the City Council Housing Subcommittee on which Councilmembers Carmen Montano and Bob Nuñez sit, the rent review program will allow any tenant whose rent increases by more than 7 percent to request a review by the city between the tenant and the tenant’s landlord.

If a solution can’t be reached, the tenant can request a hearing before a city-appointed five-member rent review board. The board will be comprised of two landlords who own property in Milpitas, two Milpitas tenants, and a Milpitas resident who is neither a landlord nor a tenant. The decision would be non-binding, which means landlords are free to ignore the agreement reached by the board.

Members on the rent review board would, according to Housing Authority Administrator Robert Musallam, “have demonstrated interest in the issues considered by the board.”

The resolution passed after almost three hours of public comment and deliberations.

Left out of the city’s rent review ordinance, meanwhile, was the highly-contentious factor of just-cause evictions, which requires landlords to cite a reason for eviction before forcing out a tenant. This would prevent landlords from evicting tenants in order to jack up rent.

 The omission didn’t sit well with Vice Mayor Karina Dominguez.

“It feels like deja vu all over again and again,” she said.

Dominguez demanded an emergency just cause amendment be included in the ordinance by the end of the meeting.

“The crisis has gotten worse. It has not gotten any better,” she said about the lack of a just cause amendment. “For me, this is something that can’t wait. These are families that are hurting and could lose their homes.”

The vice mayor was one of two supporters — the other being Councilmember Bob Nuñez, also a steadfast supporter of just cause — of the tenant protection measures that failed to pass in May.

Since that vote, community members have peppered the council during meetings with concerns about tenant rights, while one of the community’s most active lobbying groups, Better Milpitas, has stood vehemently against it.

Legally, the council could not enact an emergency ordinance for just cause that night, as it was not on the agenda. 

Instead, a just-cause eviction item will be discussed at a special meeting scheduled for September 24, at the insistence of Dominguez, who has openly criticized her council counterparts for “asking for more time” to decide on the issue.

“Six months ago, I was told we needed more time,” Dominguez said. “And here we are again.”

The council made their decision in the shadow of California Assembly Bill 1482 (AB 1482), which passed the Legislature earlier this month, and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. 

AB 1482, known officially as the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, enforces statewide rent control and just cause evictions, and places a limit of 5 percent plus consumer price index (CPI), with a cap of 10 percent for rent increases. In contrast, Milpitas restricts rent increases up to 7 percent.

But AB 1482 stops short in other aspects of housing affordability, allowing smaller jurisdictions to enact stricter regulations if they so choose. The bill also doesn’t include any provisions for just cause evictions, and it doesn’t apply to apartments built in the last 15 years. It also excludes single-family homes.

And unlike Milpitas’s ordinance, a decision made under AB 1482 would be legally binding for the parties involved.

In contrast, Milpitas’s rent review ordinance does include provisions for single-family homes, and applies to apartments built in the last 15 years. It also includes provisions for subsidized housing, including tenants receiving benefits from the Section 8 program. It prohibits landlords from retaliating against tenants who wish to seek action against them through a public hearing, a legitimate concern among current tenants who came to the meeting.

“The burden to report [landlords] lies solely on the tenant, who might not have the language facility, time, or confidence to come forward,” McDonald said, highlighting the difficulties tenants face in bringing up a case against landlords, and the lack of hefty fines to hold landlords accountable for rent abuse.

And for some tenants, retaliation has already been exacted.

“They’ve [the landlord] given us [the tenants] a very hard time; they ignore our calls. Nothing gets done,” said resident Bertha Rios, recounting an experience where her landlord retaliated against her for complaining about rising rents. A city-supervised hearing as spelled out in the ordinance could make things difficult for tenants fearful of retribution.

Rios added, “When filing a complaint, it needs to be anonymous.”

“Extreme rent increases and arbitrary evictions are the biggest issues tenants are facing,” said Michael Trujillo, an attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that has chosen to not support the ordinance. He claimed that tenants would have a difficult time staging a defense against landlords for retaliation, and that the ordinance would put tenants “in a risky process,” especially since landlords don’t have to abide by the review board’s decision.

  In the meantime, Balancing AB 1482 with the city’s proposed rent control initiatives made for a point of contention among the city’s leaders and residents who showed up to the meeting. Some were simply concerned that the city’s ordinance didn’t go far enough in protecting tenants.

“I’m personally facing threats of eviction due to our complaints of rodents, roaches, and other habitability concerns,” said resident Chris Rios, a Stanford Student who has struggled with paying rent, and alleged his landlord has intentionally kept his complex unclean. “Where’s the justice?”

The project will cost $50,000 a year and will run for two years between November 1 of this year and December 31, 2019, for a total cost of $100,000, to come out of Milpitas’s affordable housing fund. It will be administered by Project Sentinel, a nonprofit housing agency based in Santa Clara. Sentinel itself was criticized by a resident on Tuesday who claimed that the agency did little to help her when she was evicted.

The other major Housing Subcommittee-related item on the agenda, a pilot rent relief program, which would provide financial help for low-income tenants, was tabled for the council’s next meeting on October 1.

 

Lloyd Alaban
Lloyd Alaban is a freelance writer who has lived in Milpitas his entire life. He has a BA in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz and a MS in Journalism & Mass Communications from San Jose State University. He has written for publications such as AsianWeek, realtor.com, Work+Money, and SpareFoot, and currently writes for sports blog Uni Watch. He’s also worked at tech companies like Yahoo! and Google, and has subbed at every public school in Milpitas — except Pomeroy. In his spare time, he likes playing anything that has to do with trivia (especially watching Jeopardy!), running, drinking beer, reading, and playing with his Siberian Husky.

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