City Council Abandons Tenant Stipulation | Rental Advocates Score Win as City Seeks UUT Polling

During another virtual council meeting the city ultimately decided to continue with leniencies implemented for tenants struggling to make ends meet after an uproar from the community News | South Pasadena City Council meets virtually on May 6, 2020

In another marathon meeting Wednesday, the South Pasadena City Council rejected a plan to stiffen eligibility for coronavirus-inspired tenant eviction protections, ushered in a raft of zoning changes to streamline planning and permitting rules, dumped a Sacramento lobbyist and narrowly approved a controversial contract to test voter sentiment on the coming utility users tax (UUT) renewal.

The plan to require tenants to provide substantial documentation that COVID-19 impacts constrain their ability to make rent payments was slipped quietly onto the consent agenda. But rental advocates flagged it and made a fuss. By the time it came up on last night’s agenda, staff had already backed off.

City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe announced a late revision to simply follow the lead of the county. On April 14, county supervisors unanimously adopted a revised standard allowing tenants to “self-certify” the virus has adversely impacted their ability to pay rent. The county’s measure also extends the point at which tenants must repay arrears to 12 months after the formal end of the emergency–six month longer than under the city’s provision.

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The county argues its standard applies to any city without such a resolution, a position flatly rejected by South Pasadena city attorney Teresa Highsmith. Moreover, the county measure was not adopted without controversy, as the California Apartment Association and other landlord groups opposed the expansion, complaining property owners have mortgages to pay. And on Monday, the city council in Pasadena rejected a tenant self-certification provision.

Forty-three South Pasadenans filed comments or signed petitions against greater documentation, while none supported it.

South Pasadena Fifth District Councilmember Diana Mahmud argued strenuously to require documentation. Neither the state nor county can relieve mortgage holders of their obligations, so the measure is not balanced, she said. Ordinances in many other cities like Alhambra and Santa Monica do require documentation, which amounts to little more than an extension of the credit check virtually all landlords require. Unscrupulous people may take advantage of the rule. Extending repayment to 12 months after lifting of the emergency creates enormous uncertainty as there is no telling when that will occur. Delayed payments will put many seniors in financial trouble or at risk for default of their mortgages–and the protections offered by the President’s emergency order, which only apply to federally-backed loans and borrowers who actually live on the premises, expire soon and are unlikely to be renewed. “How can we put the thumb so heavily on the scale of justice…in favor of one class of residents against another class of residents?”

Mahmud was outvoted 4 to 1 by her colleagues who said the overriding issue is preventing homelessness.

Second District Councilmember Marina Khubesrian said she did not believe the documentation provision was too onerous to ask but was nonetheless inclined to let the county rule take precedence. Tenants and landlords “depend on each other and need to make it work and offer a good faith effort” to do so. Most landlords are working with their tenants and most tenants are “trying to do their best to catch on their rent.”

The Council also had a sharp debate over a request—also pulled from the consent agenda—to sign a $24,950 contract with Encinitas, CA-based True North Research Inc. “to produce an unbiased, statistically reliable evaluation of voters’ interest in extending the existing UUT (with a potential rate increase), as well as identify how best to align the measure with community priorities and prepare it for voter approval.”

Once again, all five of the public comments filed were opposed.

Councilmember Richard Schneider said the poll will simply repeat information learned in recent UUT and sales tax polls, that the information advocates need is already available from the city and that the outcome of the vote will be the same regardless of any polling.

Councilmember Michael Cacciotti said polling is great in flush times but with the city looking at over $5 million in deficits and $2 million for increased state retirement costs, “every penny counts.”

Mahmud said the group of advocates who will do most of the work to promote the UUT renewal believe they need the information the poll would provide. She felt so strongly, she was prepared to put $5,000 of her own discretionary budget toward the cost. Councilmember Khubesrian said things have changed considerably since the last polling was done a year ago. She was prepared to offer $3,000 of her discretionary funds.

Once again, the deciding vote went to Mayor Robert Joe, who said he wanted the advocates to be have the information. He offered $2,000 from his fund.

The Council also approved an “urgency ordinance” that makes substantial changes to the zoning code. The Planning Department has been accumulating these needed changes for some time and was looking to put together a regular ordinance to get them approved. But planning applications, “chair reviews” and requests for accessory dwelling units have been piling up, particularly since people have been confined to their homes, said Planning and Community Development Director Joanna Hankamer, so the Department wants to push this through now with an eye to firming up the changes through a regular process next summer. The Council approved the move unanimously, as long as the formal ordinance, reviewed by the appropriate city commissions, emerges no later than August.

The city also voted to terminate its contract with Emmanuels Jones and Associates, a Sacramento lobbyist. The move came up after Councilmember Cacciotti asked to consider termination as a cost saving measure. The termination will save $19,500.

Khubesrian said that it’s smart, especially for a small city, to have public relations in Sacramento, “but given the climate and where we are at with the budget,” she supported termination and the Council approved it unanimously.


Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.