California’s eviction moratorium, prompted by the pandemic, expired on Sept. 30. But while nearby cities have worked to help impacted residents, Palo Alto’s City Council has yet to hold a discussion about what to do.
At least 245 Palo Alto residents have requested rent relief through the state and county programs, with dozens of applications still unpaid, according to the California COVID Rent Relief Program Dashboard and the Santa Clara County Homelessness Prevention System, as of Oct. 19.
Palo Alto’s median rent is the highest in Santa Clara County and 46% of residents rent, second only to Mountain View.
Nearly three-fourths of households in Palo Alto that earn between $50,000 and $79,000 annually are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
When asked about the moratorium a week before its expired, City Council Member and Congressional Candidate Greg Tanaka said that the city had “certain abilities to go beyond that, but not too much more,” but could not elaborate on what these abilities could look like for renters in need because “it just hadn’t come up yet.”
The city council’s silence is in stark contrast to actions taken by other cities who used the end of state protections as a time to help community members who need assistance.
The City of Mountain View is hosting a weekly eviction help center at the public library to help residents apply for financial assistance, review eviction notices, and connect people to additional services if needed. The city has also reserved $45,000 to help support tenants who seek legal assistance in eviction cases. Oakland City Council has passed a Local Emergency Order that continues to fully protect tenants until the council chooses to end the order
Leah Cowan, steering committee member for the Palo Alto Renters’ Association, says that the lack of leadership from the Palo Alto City Council is “disappointing.”
From Cowan’s perspective, city council members “have the power” because they are “the only people at the table that have the access to make some of these decisions,” referring to creating protections for renters.
The Palo Alto Renters’ Association was created in September 2020, to represent the needs of renters and pair community and resources together through events such as a Sept. 26 Renters’ Picnic, where residents discussed priorities, shared snacks and connected with local help programs.
Tanaka points to the imbalance of power between the council and City Manager Ed Shikada as the reason the topic has not been addressed.
“I would say it’s [the agenda] like 90-95%, city manager-set, and then maybe 5% mayor-set. So, to us, I think actually, probably staff has a little bit too much power because they have more control of the agenda than the elected officials and that’s a bit of a problem right now,” says Tanaka.
Tanaka expressed his desire to discuss renter protections with the council, “I think we should talk about it. Right? I think housing is a big deal. I think a lot of people will be affected…I think COVID-wise, people are still recovering… and so we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Council member Greer Stone agreed that renter protections needed to be prioritized and shared that he had expressed his desire to have a conversation on the topic twice to city staff previously.
Stone said, “as council members, we can tell the mayor and city manager, this is something that’s important to us and we want to agendize that, now it’s up to them to listen.”
While Stone could not point to a specific reason why the topic had not been addressed, he does not believe that Shikada holds as much power over the agenda scheduling as Tanaka does. Instead, he believes that creating the agenda is a collaborative process between Shikada and Tom DuBois, the mayor of Palo Alto.
Shikada, in response to questions submitted via email, wrote that staff would be “bringing forward renter protections for Council consideration” in November, although this is only “tentatively scheduled” for now. He did not comment on Tanaka’s view about the city manager largely controlling the council’s agenda.
Stone confirmed that, as the liaison to the Human Relations Commission, he was aware of “six or seven different recommendations” centered around renter protections that would be forwarded to the council for consideration in the near future.
Cowan recommends that impacted renters who are facing eviction now should reach out to Project Sentinel, the Law Foundation, or to the Palo Alto Renters’ Association directly to be connected to additional resources. Project Sentinel assists with a variety of housing issues and offers a free dispute resolution program. The Law Foundation provides free legal advice for low-income families.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Leah Cowan, steering committee member for the Palo Alto Renters’ Association.