Hundreds beseech East Palo Alto council to end evictions

City Council votes to look at changing its ordinance, create housing task force

Facing a packed council chamber that overflowed with hundreds of residents on Tuesday night, the East Palo Alto City Council addressed how the city could best stem a flood of recent evictions from red-tagged and illegal dwellings while responsibly keeping its residents safe and enforcing the city's laws.

The council voted unanimously to direct staff to form a community task force to find solutions to the problem. The council also unanimously directed staff to look into changing the city's current ordinance, which requires evictions after a 10-day notice for a dangerous or illegal structure. The city could extend the time to 30 days.

City leaders listened to a litany of concerns from residents, landlords and housing advocates, who outlined how the recent ramp-up of code enforcement has impacted the community, thus far forcing an estimated 52 people out of illegal or sub-standard second-dwelling units onto the streets, according to the city's own estimates. The city has currently red-tagged 53 structures, according to a staff report.

East Palo Alto has long been troubled by illegal second-dwelling units on properties and overcrowding in single-family homes that have created, in some instances, mountains of trash and parking and vermin issues. The city began stepping up enforcement of its building and safety codes earlier this year after it hired additional code-enforcement officers to largely respond to citizen complaints.

But the efforts have had an unintended consequence: the tearing apart of families and sudden evictions that have made them homeless, residents said.

A receptive council found itself caught in the middle, stuck between state laws and its own ordinances, which currently limit its ability to take immediate emergency actions, and a desire to stop the hemorrhaging clearly taking place. It appeared to be an emotional issue for council members as well as the public.

Advocates presented a white-paper report, titled "Community White Paper Legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units in East Palo Alto -- A Vision for a Long-Term Solution," addressing the issue and possible long-term solutions. The report asks the city to consider an immediate two-year moratorium on red-tagging any unit other than those identified as posing a life-threatening condition.

The report, which was created by St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Faith Missionary Baptist Church, Tokaikolo Church, Project Sentinel and Faith in Action Bay Area, asks that the city allow illegal dwellings to stand and to create a second-unit amnesty program of reduced fees to allow property owners to upgrade their units and comply with regular inspections. A task force would help come up with a reduced-fee schedule so that landlords who want to comply can upgrade their units.

The report also strongly recommends that the city develop a comprehensive education program for landlords and tenants so they will understand the codes and construction standards. The instructions could be in a handbook translated into multiple languages, which residents speak, including English, Spanish, Samoan and Tongan.

Advocates asked for a 30- and 60-day notice for imminent hazards to allow tenants to find alternate housing. As a long-term solution, the report suggests a period of amnesty so landlords will feel safe and come out of the shadows to get help to legalize their units.

The report also asks the city to define an "imminent hazard," noting that families whose dwellings have been red-tagged are not been clearly informed about the violation and imminent hazard. The determinations instead appear to be arbitrarily made by the code-enforcement officer. The community would also like to have an independent third party present during inspections, which would include persons with planning and code-enforcement experience.

But city staff noted that under state law the city must enforce the state building code, which requires an abatement of the hazard within 30 days or sooner if deemed necessary for health and safety reasons. Therefore, a moratorium would not be legal. But the city could change its 10-day law for red-tagging to 30 days, and it could seek funding to help property owners bring second-dwelling units up to code, at least minimally.

City staff presented a staff report that found multiple points of agreement with the community's report, but both staff and council members expressed regret that the white paper wasn't received in time for staff to meld its contents with the city's document.

The staff report recommends issuing a request for proposals for an organization to provide displacement-assistance services, including motel vouchers, first- and last-month rent assistance, relocation help and other services.

Many residents are not aware of their rights, including that landlords are required to provide financial assistance for relocation. Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto provides legal assistance in compelling landlords to provide that assistance, but many residents don't know about the services, staff noted.

The city could expand its affordable-housing strategy by involving other communities and seeking funding from state and federal agencies. It might also try to find ways to get an estimated 100 units available at Woodland Park Apartments to be subsidized at lower rents.

The proposed community task force would also help identify resources in the community that could help create educational programs for landlords and tenants and identify ways to bring the community's talent pool of construction workers, plumbers and other laborers to help make many of the structures habitable.

But the city also recognized that it must identify funding sources to make those options viable. Council members agreed that such funding is out there. They pointed to $200,000 in funding that is available to create a domestic-violence program in East Palo Alto.

Jennifer Martinez, executive director of Faith in Action Bay Area, said the city's direction to council was a good start, but it doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

"I'm hearing people say that they are concerned the city isn't going to move quickly enough to avoid the immediate additional displacements. They have to move quickly," she said.

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