Civic Engagement on the Rise as City Budget Falters

At the February 4th, 2020, City Council meeting, Finance Director Mark Rasiah and City Manager Karen Pinkos presented the council members with a City budget no longer balanced. On top of that, we learned that the city’s bond rating is now BBB, which means there can not be any new bonds (like a library bond) passed. With council members visibly upset and extremely disappointed, we learned that the promised balanced budget for 2019-2020 required some serious cuts. Mayor Lyman directed staff to come back with 2 million dollars in cuts at the next meeting (February 18th). Furthermore, the City faces ascending expenses and revenues that are no longer increasing at the same levels with literally no safety net.

How did the city find themselves in this mess? What happened to the reserves? Didn’t the previous audit of 2018-19 suggest that the City faced some troubling financial times and why were no actions take then? (See our previous blog post). Engaged citizens organized themselves into the El Cerrito Committee for Responsible Government, and are calling on the City Council for greater transparency and accountability. To learn more about the financial situation facing our city please visit their website.

In just a week, City staff will be hosting a Strategic Planning meeting for community input. In the past, the meeting intended to offer residents a space for visioning the future, to dream big, and prioritize needs. This year residents will be asked to prioritize services, and contest cuts in some areas and favor cuts in others. At the prior public meetings, residents have repeatedly spoken out about protecting the Fire Department staff and council reiterated that as a priority. City staff produced a non-strategic list of random cuts for a 2019/2020 balanced budget. This list included the removal of the annual 4th of July event from the budget as well as a cut in library hours and senior services.

What do you think? Please let the city staff and council know. You can do so using the strategic plan on-line survey due by Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day). You can also email the city manager and the council or speak out an any of the scheduled meetings.

The Strategic Plan OPEN HOUSE is this Wednesday, Feb. 12 from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Council Chambers. There is also a City Council Strategic Plan Workshop is March 14, Saturday, from 9:30 – 2 pm also at the City Council Chambers. 

How can we be progressive rather than reactive amidst this financial challenge?

Some suggestions are:

Reduce operational funding from Departments where it is possible. This is the task of the Department Heads to audit their own internal expenditures. How much are they spending on consultants and why do they not feel that they have the expertise to address issues in their field?

Freeze positions and management promotions- no more new hires until the City can begin to institute new streams of revenue through the engagement with volunteers/citizens who do not charge consultant fees.

Retain needed services including library hours and Senior services. We need to rethink how people with less resources often highly utilize what are considered non-essential services. To many these services are indeed essential? What would be the impact on those residents if the services were cut? What would that mean for isolated seniors who use the Center as a means to break their isolation and/or have a meal. What does significantly reducing library hours mean for working families who cannot afford to order their books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and use the library for computers, printers, and other services that they may not have access to otherwise.

Expect the City Manager and the Finance Director to be accountable to the City Council and provide adequate and timely information so that our elected officials can make informed decisions on our behalf. Expect the City Council to hold them staff accountable and ask the tough questions.

Involve residents by engaging in a transparent budgeting process that allows us to review the assumptions, the analysis and the outcomes of the prepared budgets.

Address the overtime issue of the Fire Department. Overtime Pay was a factor in the poor financial health of this city. This year it is budgeted at 1.2 million dollars. It is not sufficient to get a verbal reassurance that overtime is cheaper than other alternatives. Citizens need a written analysis of staffing patterns vs. overtime. How much revenue is reimbursed? That information needs to be provided to the City Council and the public via the city website. We all cherish the work of the Fire Department but this is an issue not only in El Cerrito. Other cities have cut down on overtime, how did they achieve this?

Engage this very talented community in a task force to create economic development in the community and have a staff person dedicated to this task. When this issue has been brought up many citizens have lots of ideas but city staff seem to disregard them all. This is a crisis it is time to think outside the box.

Citizens need to do their part too. We must hold council accountable. This new transparency is coming forth due to regular citizens demanding a town hall meeting and asking the tough questions. Everyone needs to engage in the manner they can.

We would love to hear your comments on even more ways to help El Cerrito resolve this fiscal crisis in a transparent, accountable, progressive, and compassionate manner. Please comment below with your ideas!

Proposed statewide rent cap bill: What does it mean and is it enough?

How much does this bill cover, and are local measures to address the housing crisis still necessary?

You can view the most recent version of the bill here, but bellow is our quick summary:

The short answer: Yes, local housing initiatives would still be necessary, even if AB-1482 passes in 2020.

There are two parts of the bill to look at. The first is a set of just-cause tenant protections that will apply indefinitely. The second is a rent cap that would apply for ten years before being automatically repealed. Neither part of the bill can override local ordinances that provide stronger tenant protections or stricter rent control.

The just-cause eviction protections would affect most tenants in the state of California who have lived in their rentals for more than 12 months. The bill will require landlords to cite specific just causes for eviction and termination of a lease. This includes things that are the fault of the tenant, such as defaulting on rent, dangerous or criminal activity, and failing to correct consistent problems that are a nuisance to others. If it’s something the tenant can fix, landlords are required to give tenants an opportunity to correct the problem before eviction.

The bill would also allow landlords to terminate leases for reasons that are not the fault of the tenant, such as the landlord personally wanting to occupy the rental or have their immediate family occupy the rental, deciding to demolish or substantially remodel the property, or the property being determined unfit for habitation by a government agency. When a tenant is evicted for one of these causes, the landlord must pay the tenant one month’s worth of their rent to help them find new housing.

Notable exceptions to these protections include buildings less than 15 years old, dormitories, rentals that share a kitchen or bathroom with a landlord’s primary residence, and certain single-family houses with specific clauses in their lease.

©2018 National Low Income Housing Coalition http://www.nlihc.org/oor . Fair Market Rent = Fair Market Rent.
Source: NLIHC calculation of a weighted-average HUD fair market rent. Affordable rent for average renter wage is based on BLS
QCEW, 2016, adjusted to 2018 dollars. Other rents are based on HUD Income Limits and and Social Security Administration, 2018.

The rent caps provided in this bill are set to be automatically repealed in 2030. Until then, the bill would require landlords to only increase rent once per year, with a maximum increase of 5%+the percentage increase in cost of living, with a maximum total increase of 10% a year.

Some tenants have had their rent increased 56% or more in two months when the property changed hands to new landlords. Others have had their leases terminated when they were in good standing with little recourse. Near the Del Norte BART, an apartment complex with six units is forcing out tenants one unit at a time.  New investors are remodeling units and offering them back to tenants at rates no longer affordable- displacing long term residents. 

AB-1482 would have certainly provided protections to many of these tenants who were displaced from our community, however, it will not protect them from corporate sweep of property for investment.  

Is it enough?

AB-1482 doesn’t simply cap the rent at a 5% annual increase. Instead, the cap is 5%+ the percentage cost of living increase of the area according to the Consumer Price Index (or 10%, whichever is lower). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of living increase has averaged at 3.22% a year in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area over the last five years. AB-1482 allows a 5%+the percentage increase in cost of living, which means that for areas experiencing intense growth, a more realistic take on the maximum rent increase set by this bill is around 8%.

Wages in the Bay Area have not been keeping up with the cost of living increases. According to a survey by the state’s Employment Development Department, between 2014 and 2019 the average annual wage in the Oakland-Hayward-Bekeley area has increased an average of only 2% per year. This increase has not even been keeping up with the increases in cost of living across the Bay Area, and certainly does not account for a 5% rent increase on top of that. AB-1482 would still allow housing costs to eat up a greater and greater percentage of the average person’s income. 

The average rent for a two bedroom unit in El Cerrito increased from $1,838 in April 2014 to $2,352 in April 2019, according to rentjungle.com. That’s a 27% increase across five years, averaging at 5.4% a year. Had most El Cerrito landlords increased their rent at the proposed 5%+percentage cost of living each year, rent rates in the city would actually be the same or higher on average.

The good news about this bill is that it would put a stop to sudden and dramatic rent hikes and many unfair evictions. While it doesn’t address the underlying trend of rising rents, it would put a stop to the worst rent price gouging, and the just cause eviction requirements are drastically needed. Creating a statewide baseline of protection is critical for many tenants who live in cities like El Cerrito, where no tenant protections exist.

The bill AB-1482 is a step in the right direction, but it is not a complete solution

In addition to these basic protections, local communities concerned about the displacement of their current residents must carefully look at the local conditions and make policy based on these local conditions. When residents are forced out for no fault of their own, will the tenant relocation protections be sufficient to keep people from moving into their cars or the streets? If someone is already on the streets, how can they get back into secure housing? The answers to these questions will depend on what other options are available, who they are designed for, and who is brought to the table when discussing solutions to our housing crisis. How we can increase the amount of safe, affordable, and accessible housing available to members of the El Cerrito community? 

Stay updated on this issue and more by following El Cerrito Progressives on Twitter and Facebook

Immediate Call to Action: Call now and ask for YES vote on #AB1482, the anti-rent-gouging bill! Other tenant organizers are in the Capitol this week meeting in person, calls will help.

Priority:

916-319-2004 or extension 2022, 2028, 2037, 2041, 2045, or 2072


Want to join our movement? Click here!

Who’s Who on the Tenant Protection Task Force?

 Last week the El Cerrito City Council repealed ordinance 2019-04, which included Just Cause for eviction and other tenant protections. Multiple council members expressed hopes that the ordinance will be replaced with something stronger and more comprehensive. This new, stronger ordinance is to be developed by the new Tenant Protections Task Force.

According to the city of El Cerrito website, “the purpose of the Task Force is to bring together landlords and tenants to find common ground in order to make policy recommendations to the City Council for their consideration”

However, the purpose of the task force is still in question, according to ECP members.  If the task force is to come to a consensus on the difficult and highly emotional issue of rent control, how will an equal number of landlords and tenants every reach a consensus? And is rent stabilization really on the table?  Or is the task force another vehicle to rehash the non-binding rent mediation program favored by CAA, but proven to be lacking in real protections for tenants?  

During last week’s meeting the City Council also announced the four tenants and four landlords that now serve on the task force. Councilman Gabe Quinto lead with personal attacks in his objections to two of the tenants on the task force. Others council members had preferences without clearly stated reasons.

Landlords:

Norman LaForce

LaForce has been a resident of El Cerrito for 36 years and owns two rental units in El Cerrito as part of a duplex. LaForce is a retired lawyer of the Law Offices of Christian Green, and served on the City Council from 1991-1999. In addition to his experience as a lawyer and landlord, LaForce taught Land Use and Property Law at Golden Gate University Law School from 2004-2014. In his application LaForce expressed interest in developing “fair and appropriate regulations and laws that protect both tenants and landlords, especially small landlords.”

(So does this mean fair and reasonable for the landlord and tenant, or simply the landlord?)

Peter Pan

A resident of El Cerrito for 22 years, Pan owns two rental units in a duplex in El Cerrito. He is a Real Estate Broker with a BS in Computer Science. Pan noted on his application his experience “over 25 years working with local real estate customers”. 

Tyra Wright

Wright has lived in El Cerrito for 32 years and owns one single-family rental unit in El Cerrito. Wright is a Real Estate Agent and Property Management Assistant, and is also an active member of the National Association of Realtors, California Association of Realtors, and Contra Costa Association of Realtors. On her profile at Feagley Realtors, Wright says she advocates “to protect private property rights and home ownership.” In her application to the task force, Wright noted she wishes to “help find a balance and reasonable resolution to tenant/landlord issues.”  Again, what is “reasonable” and to whose standard?

Elizabeth (BJ) Thorsnes

Thorsnes has lived in El Cerrito for 39 years and owns four rental units in a quadruplex in El Cerrito. Thorsnes is a retired lecturer and editor of the Consortium on Reading Excellence in Berkeley. In her application, Thorsnes cited her knowledge of landlord-tenant laws in addition to her 44 years of experience as a landlord in El Cerrito as reasons she can help sort out these issues. She also noted in her application that she “..view[s] being a landlord not as an investment but as part of a service industry. As such, [she] expect[s] things from landlords, [herself] included, and from tenants.”

Tenants:

George Gager

Gager has lived in El Cerrito for 13 years and works as a consultant to HUD and housing agencies nationwide. Gager notes that sustainable and affordable housing is “the single greatest passion” in his life, and sees The Tenant Protections Task Force as a “unique opportunity to deliver affordable housing solutions for families close to home.” Despite working in affordable housing marketplace, Gager acknowledges that he has not worked locally during the last 8 years. In addition to the task force, Gager also serves on the El Cerrito Arts and Culture Commission and the Economic Development Committee.

Buddy Akacic

Akacic has lived in El Cerrito for 7 years and has been a tenant all his life. Akacic is retired and previously worked at Buckelew Programs. In his application, Akacic noted his belief that tenant-landlord relationships are “critical” and that the city is best served when “competing interests are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction” 

Isis Bastet

Bastet has lived in El Cerrito for 8 years and is the Assistant Vice President of Procurement Contracts at East West Bank. She cites solving issues through “community collaboration” so that residents can enjoy the “gifts our community offers”. 

Richard Bell

Bell has been a resident of El Cerrito for 10 years and is a retired social worker and manager. Bell applied to the task force because of his “longstanding interest in housing issues” and a desire to help maintain a “stable, sustainable El Cerrito community”

When the City Council voted on this configuration for the Task Force, ECP members raised opposition, noting the potential of a stalemate.  ECP suggested bringing on more homeowners without a vested interest, but the city nixed the idea. Will the task force be another distraction or excuse for delaying action on this urgent issue? 

The City has repeatedly vowed to create a stronger ordinance, when will we see it?  Will the task force honor the sentiments stated in their applications?

You can stay updated on the Tenant Protection Task Force meetings and agenda items here.  The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, September 23rd at 6:30pm at City Hall in the Creekside Room. The public is welcome.

Stay updated on ECP’s plans on this issue by following us on Twitter and Facebook

Want to join our movement? Click here!

City Seeking Applicants Tenant Protections Task Force

El Cerrito Progressives encourages resident tenant and landlords to consider applying for a temporary task force to advise the city on tenant protections.   What policies can be put into place to prevent the displacement of our residents, many of whom are with limited income or fixed income and others who are of moderate income but are now reaching their limit of affordability, paying over 35%-50% of their monthly income toward rent?

Continue reading “City Seeking Applicants Tenant Protections Task Force”