“Rent is due today, and a lot of Fullerton residents can’t afford to pay. Without your support, a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness will come to our communities, individuals, and our local economy,” Fullerton resident Leonel Talavera said to Fullerton City Council during public comments on June 2.
Council was discussing a temporary 60-day rent freeze proposed by Councilmember Jesus Silva due to residents experiencing rent increases and job losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This item was raised in response to concerns by tenants about the low-income apartment complex Palm Gardens, many of whom have lost their jobs and whose landlord has imposed an 8.5% rent increase effective June 1.
A rent freeze is not an elimination of rent, but only a temporary ban on rent increases.
Ultimately, Council did not have the votes to move forward with the rent freeze and voted the idea down 3-2 with Silva and Councilmember Ahmad Zahra voting in favor, and Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald, Mayor Pro tem Flory, and Councilmember Whitaker voting “no.”
As an alternative motion, Council voted 3-2 (Fitzgerald and Whitaker “no”) for staff to bring back options for a tenant-based rental assistance program, despite the fact that City staff and the City Manager said that the City currently doesn’t have funding for such a program to help Palm Gardens renters. They said they are exploring options.
During public comments, some residents of Palm Gardens shared their stories.
One woman, who has lived at Palm Gardens for nearly 15 years, said that her husband was laid off due to COVID-19, and that her hours as a nurse have been cut.
“We do not qualify for any stimulus check due to our mixed family status,” she said. “Therefore, we don’t qualify for any government assistance or unemployment benefits. The owners of Palm Gardens apartments are aware that not all of us can pay the 8.5% increase, especially through the financial hardships that we are all facing with this public health crisis. I am asking for your support of a 60-day rent freeze due to this COVID-19 public health crisis, as we all try to heal as a community.”
Alejandro Ramirez, another resident of Palm Gardens said, “It’s just really concerning and it baffles me that during this time we would see an 8.5% increase. My mom went from cleaning 7 houses a week to 1 house a week. That is detrimental to a family like ours and many of our neighbors. My dad lost one of his jobs, and kept the other job working at a grocery store despite him being diabetic because he knew there was nothing else he could do. So, all we’re asking for is just a simple freeze. We’re not asking for you guys to take the rent away, just a little ease off our back, to make it a little easier. The anxiety and the stress are real and I see it every day when I see my neighbors. We’re just asking for a little help.”
A 13-year-old honor student from Parks Jr. High and a Palm Gardens resident said, “This pandemic invites us to stop and rethink whether we are living with dignity and justice, or if we are being hostile with the vulnerable…Freezing the rent during COVID-19 helps the most vulnerable to ease their burdens, and helps families keep their homes safe.”
Another resident said that both she and her husband have been unemployed since March. “We have seen hardships due to COVID-19 and this rent increase is very stressful for us, for my family. We’re asking you to postpone this rent increase for a few months due to this crisis that we’re living in now.”
“What’s going on with these landlords? Are they crazy? Where is their consideration that we’ve lived here for so many years?” Alma Chavez, who has lived at Palm Gardens for 15 years, said. “Please help us. I’ve been investigating. We’re not the only apartments who have had a rent increase…We want you to please support us because we don’t want to become homeless.”
Palm Gardens is owned by Palm Garden Apts Ltd Partnership and Bertram Partners (whose owner is listed as Kenneth B. Black). The complex is managed by iAsset Management, with headquarters in Irvine, whose partners include Jerry McLane and Kenneth B. Black.
Eddie Carmona made a statement on behalf of State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva. “In this time of economic crisis, our most vulnerable should not have to live in fear of being evicted…It is unconscionable for our city to allow landlords to raise rents or enforce evictions at this time.”
Other cities, including Santa Ana and Buena Park, have implemented some form of rent increase moratorium within the last two months related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even before COVID-19, our county and our cities were facing an affordable housing crisis. We all know this,” Leonel Talavera, said. He gave some statistics from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition:
-More than half a million people experience homelessness each night in the US.
-A national shortage of 7 million affordable apartments have left fewer than 4 low-income homes for every 10 extremely low-income residents.
-8 million of these low-income renters pay at least half of their limited income on rent, leaving them one financial emergency away from eviction and, in the worst cases, homelessness.
“For many of these residents, the COVID-19 crisis is a financial emergency,” Talavera said. “It’s a financial emergency, guys. For many of these renters, more than half of low-income households report a recent or sudden job loss or decline in income due to the pandemic. Many low-income renters who paid their rent in May did so with the stimulus check, and that’s if they received one. I was also informed today that this particular landlord is now asking for tenants to pay with their credit cards, putting them under more financial strain. Madam Mayor, I listened to you at the last meeting when you said, “The things I hear most in our city are about homelessness. I want to make sure that we do everything in our power to be able to prevent this and to get people off our streets.”
After public comments, City Council discussed the item.
Silva mentioned a letter sent to Council by the California Apartment Owner association opposing the rent freeze.
“Don’t allow the California Apartment Owners Association to dictate what you do,” Silva said to his fellow councilmembers. “They do a great job of spinning things, putting it in their own words, and making it fit for their clients, and I get that. I’m trying to do just as good of a job for our clients, which are our residents, which are my students, their parents—to try to get them some help, some relief.”
The rent increase issue “may have started with Palm Gardens but it’s moving on” to other apartment complexes, particularly in low income areas, according to Silva.
Councilmember Ahmad Zahra was the only other member to support the rent freeze.
“This is a low-income community and the landlord decided that they wanted to increase the rent at a time when most of these people have lost their jobs or are struggling already. So, I think that this [landlord] is definitely a bad actor who hasn’t even communicated properly with the residents on this,” Zahra said.
Mayor Pro tem Jan Flory, who did not support the rent freeze, said she was concerned about the potential impact on residents of Rancho La Paz mobile home park, whose owner wrote into their lease that, should the City pass any form of rent control he would drastically increase his tenants’ rent.
Flory also said, “The courts are closed right now…you can’t file an unlawful detainer [eviction] action in the court right now…so I’m wondering if we are wading into very muddy waters here…I’m wondering if the help that we should be talking about are HOME [federal housing] funds to help pay for the rent. Something like that as opposed to the rent freeze that isn’t even going to go into effect for two months.”
Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald, who also opposed the rent freeze, asked Kellee Fritzal from the City’s Economic Developing and Housing Department, if the City’s tenant-based rental assistance program could help these renters.
Fritzal’s answer was, essentially, no. The City’s two current rental assistance programs are restricted to senior mobile home parks and veterans.
Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, who opposed the rent freeze, said that the rent increases are “a small part of what these people are facing. The real big issue here is the ongoing lockdown that we have, the way that these people are out of jobs, the fact that the economy is being shut down and held down. This lockdown needs to end.”
Whitaker asked for “bold action,” saying, “It’s time to end this silliness of shutting down and hampering the economy.”
Silva said that what Whitaker was proposing “would put people’s lives in jeopardy, and I‘m not willing to be that bold.”
Zahra said, “The City won’t be able to change state laws. We want to open. We want to get people back their jobs, but we want to do it safely, so let’s be practical about how we can find solutions.”
When asked by the Observer if there is any potential rental assistance for the Palm Gardens renters, City Manager Ken Domer said, “There is none from the City at this time. We will be bringing an item, as requested by the Council, to the June 16 meeting for their consideration that could be used for qualified tenants, including those at Palm Gardens. But it is not a long-term funding source.”
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