Commentary: Costa Mesa has the right idea. Let’s share its tenant advocacy with the rest of Orange County
On Tuesday, Nov. 7, the Costa Mesa City Council passed an urgency ordinance to protect renters through the local enforcement of AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 and SB 567. These state laws set down procedures landlords must follow when asking a resident to leave a rented housing unit they have occupied in good standing for 12 or more months, including providing relocation assistance and documenting the reasons the tenant is being asked to vacate.
Costa Mesa is a majority renter city. According to a recent report by the O.C. United Way, 59% of Costa Mesa’s households are renters, and the city has the fourth highest eviction rate in the county. Costa Mesa, like all cities in Orange County, is increasingly grappling with issues of housing insecurity amid rising rents and residents being priced out of neighborhoods and cities. The City Council’s support for their residents is admirable. We need more cities to step up so we can have a unified and consistent response to housing insecurity across the county.
For the record:
12:28 p.m. Nov. 20, 2023An earlier version of this commentary cited the proposed ordinance, which stated the city would expand relocation assistance to a sum equal to two months of rent. The City Council voted in its Nov. 7 meeting to change that to one month, consistent with state law.
While AB 1482 granted new rights to renters and SB 567 delivered enhanced penalties to landlords who do not follow the law, there are no new agents for enforcement. There is no “California Department of Tenants Protections” to which a renter can appeal when their rights are violated. The only remedy a tenant has is to go to court. We already have an eviction crisis in an overburdened civil court system where tenants face Unlawful Detailers (the legal term for eviction) without legal representation. This crisis led the United Way of OC to produce their report “Orange County Evictions.”
Most tenants, especially those whose first language is not English, do not know that they have the right to relocation assistance in the amount equal to one month’s rent under AB 1482. Costa Mesa’s ordinance confirms the state requirement of one month of rent and requires landlords to notify the city within three days of notifying the resident that their tenancy is being involuntarily ended, often referred to as a “no-fault eviction.” It is safe to assume that many Costa Mesa landlords do not know that they have another level of financial obligation to their tenants and reporting requirements to the city when they end a resident’s tenancy.
Addressing the crisis of housing insecurity on a city-by-city basis, where each city has different rules and processes, does not solve what is a much larger, systemic problem. Orange County desperately needs a unified response to housing insecurity, and an excellent starting point would be county-wide education and resources to support tenants. This job cannot be done piecemeal by city staff, who are neither social workers nor lawyers. We need an independent agent outside city government with the professional expertise and legal standing to ensure landlords follow the law and tenants’ receive the time and assistance owed to them.
These agents already exist in the form of fair housing nonprofits. Orange County is served by two such organizations — Fair Housing Council of Orange County and Fair Housing Foundation. Both of these organizations intervene on issues of housing discrimination and landlord tenant counseling. Moreover, every city in Orange County is already contracted with a Fair Housing organization to provide assistance to residents on issues of housing discrimination. The scope of services rendered could be expanded to include the rights of tenants and responsibilities of landlords under AB 1482 and SB 567.
An urgency ordinance offers funds, resources and assistance to low-income families facing homelessness due to no-fault evictions, which impacted 63 households between July 1 and Oct. 26.
To enforce their Tenant Protection Ordinance, the city of Costa Mesa will add three staff members to review cases and ensure landlords follow proper procedures and tenants receive the relocation assistance they are owed, per the staff report. The estimated cost to execute the city’s ordinance is $850,000 over the next eight months, ending in June 2024, using remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPS) funds. What if those funds could be combined with the resources of other cities, like Buena Park, which recently passed a similar tenant protection ordinance? We could invest in and grow the capacity of the Fair Housing organizations to ensure tenant protections and have a consistent response across Orange County.
We desperately need additional resources to help renters in their current living situations. Most tenants do not know their rights under AB 1482 and SB 567; they do not know where to turn when they have disputes with landlords. Currently, the only option for low-income tenants in Orange County who need legal assistance is the pro-bono legal nonprofits Public Law Center and Community Legal Aid, which diligently serve Orange County residents but regularly turn people away who are facing eviction because they lack the staff capacity to assist them.
The Fair Housing organizations already serving Orange County cities could be charged with helping residents exercise their rights under AB 1482 and SB 567. With additional resources, they could create educational materials in multiple languages to inform tenants of their rights, help them navigate the relocation process, and connect them with housing resources. This effort would grow the capacity and resources to address housing insecurity beyond just Costa Mesa.
While the intention behind the city’s ordinance is laudable, Costa Mesa has chosen to “go it alone” by providing city staff to “case manage” the relocation of renter households from their current homes. This isn’t the job of city government, and the model is not sustainable, but we can and should build on the good intentions to support renter households by growing the capacity within the nonprofit community to educate tenants about their rights and ensure they receive the protection and assistance that state law affords them. We need city leaders from all Orange County cities to fund their Fair Housing nonprofit partners to support residents with tenant issues covered by AB 1482 and SB 567 in the same way that they address housing discrimination issues. By growing this capacity, we will make progress towards a consistent approach to addressing housing insecurity in Orange County.
Elizabeth Hansburg is co-founder and director of People for Housing OC, the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) organization supporting new affordable and workforce housing in all neighborhoods across Orange County. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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