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Editorial: Vulnerable Canal residents need urgent renter protections

May 1, 2024


Canal's 400 apartment building in San Rafael

You don’t have to go very far to figure out that rent control is a contentious topic. Larkspur, San Anselmo, San Rafael and Fairfax have hosted political battles over the issue.

In Larkspur, the city’s rent control law was reaffirmed by voters in March’s vote, but with just a 51.93% majority, hardly a mandate.

Fairfax’s rent control law will go to voters in November.

Calls for rent control – tighter than the state’s law – have increased in recent years.  As property values and local taxes have increased, so have rents.

When properties change hands, typically at much higher prices, so does the financial pressure to raise rents. But there are also many local landlords who have owned their properties for years and have kept rents at levels with an intention of retaining good tenants.

Still, tenants have sought protection, both from rising rents and being evicted when landlords want to renovate their properties.

While over the years, pressure for rent control has been from lower-income residents, rents have reached a point where middle-class residents, many of them seniors living on fixed incomes, say they are being forced out of Marin by rising payments.

In San Rafael, after more than a year of debate, the City Council has approved an “urgency” law to protect tenants from being evicted by landlords who are making renovations to their properties.

The law will expire when the tax breaks of the federal “opportunity zone” designation also runs out.

San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is an “opportunity zone” area where federal capital gains tax breaks are available to investors who acquire and upgrade properties. The Trump-era initiative, part of the  2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was sold as a way to encourage investors to acquire and improve properties in low-income census tracts.

For many tenants in the Canal neighborhood, that means they are being displaced, either by construction or concurrent increases in rents.

Those are the complaints the San Rafael City Council has been hearing.

The council’s “urgency” law is supposed to be a stop gap to prevent evictions while the city considers permanent tenant protections.

But the challenge is how to balance landlord’s property rights and source of income with protecting tenants and affordable housing.

City officials need to reach out and make sure that landlords have ample and fair say in the development of permanent laws.

The city’s “urgency” law requires landlords to pay for apartments to which tenants can temporarily move while their units are being repaired and renovated. It also ensures tenants’ right to move back into their apartments after work is complete.

The city’s law is a recognition of Canal housing as affordable housing that needs to be preserved and protected. City staff told the council that there have been reports of some displaced tenants having to double up with other families or live in their cars.

Landlords, their investment and their intent to maintain and improve their properties deserve consideration as the city considers permanent laws regarding rents, evictions and tenant displacement requirements.

The city’s rules should not be so financially burdensome that they discourage landlords from maintaining their properties.

That has been a problem, as years of overcrowding has taken a toll on the properties, often a result of households having to cope with rising rents.

Apartments that fall into disrepair are not good for anyone, tenants, owners or neighbors.

Striking a fair balance is not going to be easy.

In addition, years of failing to build affordable housing has set up this dilemma.

Preserving and protecting affordable housing is worth the investment of time and energy toward reaching equitable solutions.

The first step, however, is making sure both tenants and landlords have ample say in the work ahead toward that goal.

The “urgency” ordinance buys the city some time to allow that to take place.

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