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San Rafael eviction wave in Canal area revives pleas for help

February 7, 2024

By ADRIAN RODRIGUEZ | Marin Independent Journal

Another eviction of renters from an apartment complex in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood has spurred a renewed call for tenant protections.

Renters and their supporters amassed at City Hall on Monday to urge the City Council to enact rent control in the area after the latest displacement of tenants in 17 households at the 99-apartment complex at 400 Canal St.

“Our families here are suffering and we need your help,” said Marina Palma, a community leader in the Voces Del Canal advocacy group. “People are leaving to other cities. Please stand up for us. We need you.”

Glendy Barrios said she is among the tenants who were previously evicted from the same complex, and now at her new apartment she is already facing a $1,000 rent increase.

“Where do you expect us to live and work?” Barrios said. “Do you want us to live in the streets of San Rafael? I don’t think so.”

Tenants of the 17 apartments were notified last month by the Tesseract Capital Group, a San Francisco private equity firm, that their residences required substantial repairs because of dry rot and they would need to vacate.

The Voces Del Canal group is part of a coalition of renters and nonprofits that has been campaigning for stronger tenant protections in San Rafael since tenants of the same complex were asked to voluntarily relocate in September 2022. Letters encouraging the tenants to move were delivered as a multimillion remodel launched over a year ago.

A couple of months later, just days before Christmas, tenants were displaced after a fire connected to the renovation work ravaged the low-income complex. More tenants were displaced in January 2023 following the discovery of water damage.

Since August 2022, the property owner has requested building permits to renovate 64 apartments at the complex, said Angela Robinson Piñon, assistant city manager.

Fifty permits have been approved following city official verification that the landlord had provided relocation assistance payments to the displaced tenants, as required by the city, she said.

The coalition said the recent eviction of residents 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.

Omar Carrera is chief executive officer of Canal Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the immigrant community and member of the coalition advocating for rent control. Carrera said opportunity zones are supposed to engage the community to provide benefits such as job opportunities and new housing.

“The only thing we have seen is displacement of essential workers, of our families,” Carrera said. “This council needs to respond to those families.”

Carrera said the council stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, adopting a temporary residential rent freeze and an eviction moratorium in the Canal area, the neighborhood that had the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the county. He said the community needs the council to step up again.

Robinson Piñon said that in the city’s updated housing element, a state-required housing plan approved in 2023, officials directed staff to evaluate tenant protections.

“We are listening to the community’s concerns and recognize the urgency,” Robinson Piñon said in an email Tuesday. “Therefore, the City will be evaluating what type of temporary anti-displacement measures could be implemented in the Opportunity Zone in the coming months.”

San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin added that “due to the ongoing community input and being several years into the opportunity zone program, we believe that now is a good time to examine whether additional anti-displacement protections could be beneficial within the opportunity zone.”

“We look forward to continued collaboration with the local community organizations and our residents,” Colin said.

“It sounds encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” Lucie Hollingsworth, an attorney at Legal Aid of Marin, said about the city’s response. The nonprofit firm is another member of the coalition calling for rent control.

“This has been an ongoing conversation with the city for years,” Hollingsworth said. “We’d like to see it on an agenda.”

Most displaced renters are forced to move out of the county. Marin is already one of the most segregated counties in California, Hollingsworth said.

San Rafael has about 20% of the county population, but in 2023, more than 42% of the firm’s clients were San Rafael residents, Hollingsworth said.

“That’s definitely disproportionate, and it’s taking up a lot of our resources for low-income tenants,” Hollingsworth said. “When we’re try to preserve housing, we can’t usually do that because we don’t have the policies in place that could help us, and that’s what we’re asking for.”

A Tesseract Capital Group representative did not respond to a request for comment.

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