The Tenants Alliance of West County, a new tenants rights organization, held its first public meeting last week at the Sebastopol Grange. More than 30 people of all ages braved the cold to hear a discussion of tenants’ rights in Sonoma County, led by Jeffery Hoffman of California Rural Legal Assistance.
“Everybody knows the situation,” Hoffman said. “It’s impossible to find a place to live right now. It was very hard before the fire. But now we’ve added at lease 5,000 other households who are looking for housing. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”
Hoffman spoke for an hour, then answered questions on a range of tenant issues, including rent increases, evictions and habitability. He also talked about government housing for low-income tenants (his advice: be prepared for a 10-year wait) and housing discrimination.
Hoffman pointed out that since the fires, when California declared a state of emergency, rental prices have been kept relatively stable by Section 396 of the California State Penal Code, which limits rental increases in times of emergency to 10 percent. The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office under Jill Ravitch has brought several charges of price gouging based upon that statute.
These protections are short-lived however, Hoffman noted, and are set to expire on April 18 of this year. At that point, renters in Sonoma County will have virtually no protection from rent increases or eviction.
According to Hoffman, “After April 18, landlords will be able to raise the rent as high as they like and often as they like and evict people for no reason at all.”
That’s a future that the Tenants Alliance of West County is organizing to change.
“The bottom line is there’s not enough housing and it costs too much so anyone in Sonoma County who is a renter is in a very, very precarious situation,” said Deborah Wiig, who has been handling communications for the fledgling group.
“Our principal purpose right now is to inform people and to let them know what their options are as tenants, what their rights are,” Wiig said. “That’s why we have the speaker we have here tonight to let people know what the laws are and what protections they have—and where can they go for help if they need it. ”
Wiig’s son, Evan, a former columnist for this newspaper, who is also involved in the Tenants Alliance, agrees that these are early days for the organization.
“We have no policy platform, and no decisions have been made on what we support and what we oppose,” he said to the audience. “We’re here to listen to you so we can get a good grasp of what are renters concerned about and what can we do to help.”
“Our goal is to create a unified voice for renters,” he said. “There are representatives who are advocating in an organized smart way to make sure that the interests of property owners are heard. They have a very loud voice in our political process. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need a counter voice that represents the 50 percent of Sebastopol and west county residents who rent.”
The group is looking at different policy solutions, ranging from rent control and just-cause eviction to ways to expand rental housing, such as increasing the number of granny units and moratoriums on vacation rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO. They have not endorsed or rejected any of these policies yet, however.
As a way of finding out what West County renters need, the Tenants Alliance of West County has created a survey, which they passed out at the meeting. If you are a renter in west county, they’re eager to hear from you as well. See the tenant survey in the sidebar.
You can find out more about the Tenants Allliance for West County and watch for future events on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TenantsAllianceofWestCounty/