When the Long Beach City Council met to discuss a staff proposal on tenant assistance policies during its regular April 2 meeting, a line of public speakers snaked out of the council chamber doors and audience seating was packed to the brim. The long-awaited report summarized staff engagement efforts with tenant and landlord advocates following a city council request to draft rental policies that would improve housing security in Long Beach.
During the six-hour meeting, jeers and cheers hailed down on public speakers from both sides of the debate. Supporters of the proposed ordinance argued that it would help curb homelessness and create a more equitable relationship between landlords and their tenants. Those opposing city staff recommendations argued that requirements to provide tenants with relocation assistance payments would equate to rent control and put an undue burden on property owners.
A landlord who introduced herself as Judith Elizabeth and said she came to the council to represent owners of small properties, noted that voters had rejected measures to expand rent control at the state level. While the staff recommendations did not explicitly include rent control provisions, rent increases of 10% or more would trigger monetary relocation assistance for tenants within certain income parameters. “These programs. . . will greatly affect our business and the ability for us to continue to provide low-income housing to our renters,” she said.
Evan Hromadka, assistant vice president of investments at Equity Residential, a real estate investment trust that he said owns “a few hundred units in Long Beach,” urged the city council not to rush into a decision on the proposal. “Although Equity Residential supports the city’s endeavor to alleviate pressures created by the regional housing shortage, we must take more time before advancing policies that will be counterproductive,” he said. “The scope of this proposed ordinance is too broad and needs to be more focused on the identified issue.”
National Short Term Rental Founder and CEO Johanna Cunningham also spoke out against the proposed ordinance. “While I can empathize with renters in the context that moving is hard, that burden should not be placed on the owner’s back to supplement that move,” Cunningham said. Additionally, she argued, the ordinance may end up hurting one of the groups it set out to protect: seniors, who rely on rental income to fund their retirement. “Those owners, when they purchased the units, were and still are relying on that income to supplement their own security, health care and retirement,” she told the city council.
Many landlords argued that they had no motivation to evict good tenants and only increased rents to cover their costs. Peter Madsen, an organizer with the tenant advocacy group Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE), argued that the proposed regulations wouldn’t stand in the way of that.
Madsen, along with other tenant advocates, spoke out in favor of relocation payments starting at $4,500 for all units and tenants of all income levels, one option laid out in the report. City staff had recommended a different option: payments equal to two months’ rent for a similar unit size within the tenants’ ZIP code for households earning up to 120% of the area median income (AMI).
“The flat fee is the most equitable way to provide assistance to displaced tenants,” Madsen argued. “It’s broad and simple applicability compared to the other options, reduces the burden of monitoring and enforcement on the city staff, and does the most to achieve what renter protection policies should do: prevent homelessness by keeping people in their homes and preserve the community that makes up our beloved, diverse city.”
Christine Petit, executive director of Long Beach Forward and a member of the city’s Everyone Home Long Beach task force set up to combat homelessness, agreed with Madsen. Petit said she was confident that the ordinance would help prevent homelessness. “For our communities, time is of the essence. We urge you to pass a strong policy tonight,” she said. After Tuesday’s 6-3 vote in favor of the item, however, the city council is still several steps away from passing an actual ordinance. The vote only acknowledged that the report has been received and directed staff to create an ordinance.
Councilmembers Lena Gonzalez, Jeannine Pearce, Dee Andrews, Roberto Uranga, Al Austin and Rex Richardson voted to follow staff recommendations, with some amendments. Staff recommended the amount of relocation payments be based on the Long Beach Housing Authority’s payment standards for a similar-sized unit in the tenant’s current ZIP code. The city council motion asked for payments to be based on the average “small area fair market rent” across all Long Beach ZIP codes, with a cap of $4,500.
The council also asked staff to draft regulations that would entitle all qualifying tenants to relocation payments, regardless of their income. Other amendments included: a minimum tenancy of one year to qualify for assistance, an exemption for live-in landlords and landlords owning one four-unit building or fewer, and a scheduled revision of the ordinance within three years of implementation.
Suzie Price, one of the three councilmembers who voted against the item, said she received 155 emails from constituents urging her to oppose the proposal. Price said she supported some aspects of the proposed ordinance, including the controversial rent increase trigger point for relocation payments. “I think it is unfair for rents to be increased above 10%. I absolutely do,” she said. One of her main concerns pertained to the general spirit of the proposal. “There’s an assumption that people who own property have $4,000 to give for relocation,” she said. “That assumption is not fair. It may be true for some, but it’s not true for everyone.”
Richardson said he understood both sides. “I grew up as a renter, but I am a landlord as well. So, I understand.” Still, he argued that the city has a responsibility to remedy the results of past policies, such as redlining, that have historically excluded non-white Americans from becoming property owners. “There is a rental class that has been systematically kept out of the ownership process,” Richardson said. “This is the city’s business; we have to have these conversations.”