Laguna Beach works on measures for renter relief amid coronavirus crisis

Small groups wait on the sidewalk for phone-in pickup orders at Active Culture in Laguna Beach as businesses work to comply with directives to avoid public gatherings and uphold social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
Small groups wait on the sidewalk for phone-in pickup orders at Active Culture in Laguna Beach as businesses work to comply with directives to avoid public gatherings and uphold social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In its first meeting since closing the council chamber to in-person public attendance as a measure to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Laguna Beach City Council directed staff Tuesday night to return next week with a potential letter for landlords and a draft ordinance on deferring rent and forgoing evictions amid the pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week issued a statewide ban through May on residential evictions for those who can’t pay their rent because they have lost work, become sick or had to take care of ill family members due to the virus and the associated closures and other restrictions intended to inhibit it. But city staff said the executive order does not include commercial renters or a rent repayment schedule.

Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said she and her staff looked at six cities in Orange County, including Costa Mesa, and others in Los Angeles County and Northern California, saying there was “diversity” in how jurisdictions have approached renter relief. She said Laguna staff was seeking direction from the council on how to proceed.

Staff was not recommending a moratorium on evictions, instead leaning toward seeking cooperation from landlords, according to a report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilwoman Sue Kempf raised concerns about how landlords would be paid back.

Under Newsom’s order, renters still will be required to eventually pay all the rent they owe, and they must notify their landlords in writing within seven days of nonpayment.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said he also was concerned about deferment of rent because some landlords may be relying on that monthly income to pay their own bills.

“I think we need to be careful in how we phrase this,” Dicterow said. “I’m concerned that people do game the system. It may not be a large population, but I don’t want a letter going out [saying] that we’re giving blanket approval of deferment of rent. ... I’m concerned about giving general thoughts and something specific going out that may not reflect what the council wanted.”

Kempf and Councilwoman Toni Iseman agreed, saying the city would need to be fair to tenants and landlords alike.

“I want us to be helpful to people, but I don’t want it to turn into an unmitigated mess,” Kempf said.

Staff is scheduled to bring proposals for both a letter to commercial and residential landlords and a potential ordinance to the council’s meeting April 7.

Proposed tourism marketing district

The City Council also received public input about converting the city’s business improvement district into a tourism marketing district, as proposed by Visit Laguna Beach, the city’s tourism arm.

The business improvement district was adopted in April 2001 with the intent of using additional taxes on businesses to promote offseason cultural events and encourage hotel occupancy. Converting to a tourism marketing district would allow the district a five-year term instead of being renewed annually.

If approved, the term would begin July 1 and end June 30, 2025.

The council did not take action Tuesday, and the item will return April 21.

Two residents sent written comments raising concerns about whether the city would be able to initiate hearings about the district annually. One said annual review makes more fiscal sense.

Ashley Johnson, president of Visit Laguna Beach, said an annual report is presented to the city and that it will become an annual plan for the coming year, with input from the city.

“This conversation has been a year-long-plus process, with tonight and the April 21 meeting as the last two steps,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Visit Laguna Beach was in contact with Dupuis and other city staff members to gather insight and that local hoteliers and other lodgings had been apprised of what the conversion entails.

Johnson said she felt it is important to continue moving forward on the matter so the city’s tourism sector would be in position to recover when stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Meeting interruptions

With members of the public unable to physically attend Tuesday’s meeting, the city experimented with showing the meeting on Zoom, a remote conferencing service.

During council comments, a viewer joined the meeting on Zoom and began writing profane messages on a “whiteboard” feature that allows users to annotate on a shared screen. The viewer then tried to stream pornography before the call was ended.

The meeting was then limited to the call-in line but was interrupted a second time.

The council then teleconferenced directly into the council chamber.

Whalen apologized for the Zoom interruptions and said city staff would work to resolve the issue for future meetings.

Iseman requested that staff arrange the council chamber for all council members to attend in person if they want to. Only Councilman Peter Blake was physically present at Tuesday’s meeting.

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