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San Rafael tenants call for rent control in Canal neighborhood

March 9, 2023

By Adrian Rodriguez| Marin IJ

Firefighters work at the scene of an apartment fire at 400 Canal St. in San Rafael on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Tenants of San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood and their supporters amassed at City Hall this week to demand that officials urgently enact a rent control ordinance amid mounting fears of gentrification.

“Some of us are still working to pay the back rent left behind by COVID,” said Veronica Duarte, a renter. “If you do not help us, the stress will go up.”

Duarte, who spoke in Spanish, was among members of the community advocacy group Voces Del Canal — translated to Voices of the Canal — who helped mobilize the turnout at City Hall on Monday. Supporters wore matching red shirts marked with the group’s name and waved signs with messages reading, “No Mas Gentrification,” and “San Rafael A City With A Mission: Rent Control.”

Several participants were tenants of 400 Canal St., a three-story, 99-apartment complex that has been at the center of the debate over gentrification after tenants were asked to voluntarily relocate as a multimillion remodel ensued this fall.

Tenants were displaced in December after a fire connected to the renovation work ravaged the low-income complex. More tenants were displaced last month following the discovery of water damage.

“In our community, there have already been many evictions, and so we’re asking you to help us have our kids study here in San Rafael,” said Glendy Barrios, vice president of the 400 Canal St. Tenants Union. “We want them to continue studying.”

Marina Palma, a community leader in the Voces Del Canal group who has been a vocal supporter of the 400 Canal tenants, said, “I’m not sure which trauma is worse, COVID, or having no place to live.”

“We want to live here,” she said. “We want our kids to go to school here, and we need you to protect us.”

The protest was supported by a coalition of nonprofits that have been pressing San Rafael officials to adopt a rent control ordinance. The coalition said the recent displacement is the result of the “opportunity zone” designation given to the Canal area.

Opportunity zones were created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The zones are economically distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions, might be eligible for preferential tax treatment.

In 2021, the city adopted an ordinance requiring landlords evicting a tenant living in San Rafael’s opportunity zone to provide a significant amount of relocation assistance in an effort to discourage gentrification.

When contacted after the meeting, Omar Carrera, executive director of Canal Alliance, a nonprofit member of the coalition, said that isn’t enough.

“The opportunity zone is attracting investors that have no interest in improving the lives of people who already live here,” Carrera said. “The whole purpose of the opportunity zones was to bring investment to reactivate the community with housing, jobs, to improve the lives of the people of color and low-income communities. And what we are seeing in the Canal and across the country is the complete opposite.”

At the meeting, residents told the council that they’ve seen their friends, families and neighbors being priced out. Residents said their rents keep rising, but landlords are not maintaining buildings, forcing families to share apartments and live in below-standard conditions.

Tenant Luis Martinez said his family needs more space, but he can’t afford to move. He said a three-bedroom apartment costs around $3,800 a month, and the property management won’t lease the residence unless the tenant makes three times the rent, can pay two months for the deposit, has a valid social security and a credit score of 700 or better.

He said he’s been told apartments he’s interested in are no longer available, even though they’re still advertised. He said he feels discriminated against.

Gina Guillemette is chief strategy officer at Community Action Marin, one of the nonprofits supporting the tenants. She said since mid-November the agency has dispersed more than $1.8 million to 268 renter households through the county’s rental assistance program.

Of those, 43% were Latino households, 27% were White and 10% Black. More than 80% are among the lowest income earners, and 42% are San Rafael residents.

“So the city’s stated commitment to racial and economic justice needs to be followed with ongoing actions to ensure that this happening in practice,” Guillemette said. “Without policy action we will see further displacement.”

The topic was not on the Monday agenda. Under the Brown Act, the council is unable to have a formal discussion on items not noticed to the public.

However, City Manager Jim Schutz said there are several meetings coming up where the topic of housing will be discussed. Schutz said the city is planning a community workshop in May to discuss the city’s goals and objectives for the next two-year period. Those objectives are typically derived from policies and programs outlined in the city’s general plan and housing element.

“We appreciated hearing from the residents of the Canal neighborhood who expressed concern over a range of topics, from the cost of rent to the upkeep and condition of the housing units,” Mayor Kate Colin said after the meeting. “The city takes seriously the issue of affordable housing and renter protections in San Rafael. Over the past several years, the city has examined, and, in some cases, approved renter protections for our residents.”

Additionally, the city has taken steps to remove barriers for developers to build housing, she said. The city’s housing element 2023-2031, which contains programs to support the building and retention of all types of housing, is under state review.

“And while none of these programs are considered ‘rent control,’ if approved, they would enhance the city’s renter protections,” she said. The city is expected to receive feedback from the state by May. The document will return to the Planning Commission and City Council for community input and approval.

Carrera said tenant supporters will be attending the upcoming meetings.

“We’re going to continue to mobilize, we’re going to continue putting pressure until the city responds to the needs of low-income residents,” he said. “We’re not going to accept that ‘they can’t do anything because its a free-market issue.’ Actually, they can do a lot, and that’s why they are in the place they are, to make sure the city of San Rafael is a city for all its residents.”

Read the story on the Marin IJ

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