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San Pablo: Tenants successfully fight off no-fault evictions, preserve affordable housing

Anita Mendoza and her neighbors at the Porto Apartments in San Pablo can finally relax a little: Their landlord recently abandoned the eviction notices he taped to tenants’ doors late last year.

Property owner Martin Gonzalez claimed in January that the 14-unit complex built in 1967, which he purchased in 2019, required renovations to replace unsafe appliances, eliminate mold and termites, fix outdated electrical wiring and repair plumbing – characterizing those upgrades as necessary for the units’ safety and habitability.

Despite California’s strict tenant protection laws, landlords can evict tenants for no fault of their own in order to tackle “substantial rehabilitation” of properties – which Gonzalez insisted was required at the Porto Apartments at 2235 Church Lane.

The landlord also said he would need to increase rents to $1,500 for a one-bedroom unit and $2,000 for a two-bedroom — nearly threefold what some current residents pay — after construction wrapped in order to pay for the work.

But Mendoza, who has lived at the complex for nearly 30 years, and other tenants stressed their homes, while modest, weren’t in disrepair.

So they pushed back and found success in court.

Jackie Zaneri, a senior attorney with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) who represented Porto Apartments’ residents alongside advocates from Bay Area Legal Aid, said Gonzalez’s case for needing to evict residents eventually fell apart, especially after questions emerged about whether the work was primarily cosmetic – from remodeling kitchen cabinets to replacing light fixtures – as opposed to substantial.

Zaneri said the landlord, who also owns and operates La Strada, an Italian restaurant on the same lot, ultimately dropped all six eviction cases and signed an agreement that he would not file any additional no-fault evictions while in charge of the building.

Several attempts to reach Gonzalez for comment through phone numbers connected to his property company and restaurant were not successful.

For Mendoza, the good news that the landlord eventually backed down was extra special: She learned she and the other five families still living at Porto Apartments could stay in their homes on her 56th birthday.

“I feel so happy,” Mendoza said with a laugh of relief Thursday. “Oh my God, we could not believe it.”

SAN PABLO, CA – JANUARY 20: Anita Mendoza shows the bedroom with her dog Rocke at the Porto Apartments parking lot in San Pablo, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Mendoza who has lived there for the last 28 years, she said, is facing eviction after a new owner took over and increased the rent for at least $1000 more per month as part the apartment renovations. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

These types of housing disputes — sometimes dubbed “reno-victions” — are becoming more common, illustrating how landlords can utilize gray areas and loopholes in state laws, such as Assembly Bill 1482, to push out tenants and later raise rents, especially when pandemic eviction moratoriums across California are ending.

However, one of the biggest challenges for tenants is that they seldom have legal representation in eviction courts.

According to a 2021 report from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, 81% of landlords are represented in eviction proceedings, while only 3% of tenants retain a lawyer.

For years, housing advocates have had mixed success calling upon local governments to step in and regulate no-fault evictions.

After hours of debate, the San Pablo City Council rejected implementing an urgency ordinance proposed by ACCE in a 3-2 vote in January, when several city lawmakers were swayed by the landlord’s claims that he was simply trying to improve substandard units for tenants.

Still, Councilmember Patricia Ponce supported the urgency ordinance, saying that without it she worries no-fault evictions will continue to put vulnerable residents at high risk of being displaced and becoming homeless.

“This is much bigger than the Porto Apartments, this is about us still living in COVID times,” Ponce said during the council’s Jan. 18 meeting. “I know we are concerned with blight in our city and our landlords not investing in their properties – I get it – but this is why we need to work together to find a balanced approach to all of this.”

Derek Barnes, CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord advocacy group, favors fewer restrictions. He suggested solving housing disputes without them could help keep more properties from being sold to outside corporate investors. He also worries about expensive building repairs becoming needlessly neglected.

“We have to be mindful that having more restrictions and ordinances also means that there’s cost associated with that,” Barnes said. “Housing is complicated, and it isn’t one size fits all. We want to make sure that we have the right people around the table as we’re developing policies and programs so that we don’t create far-reaching, unintended consequences.”

There are currently 15 no-fault ordinances in the Bay Area, including in neighboring Berkeley and Richmond.

And in 2018, San Francisco passed a ballot measure – the first of its kind in the country – that required access to an attorney for tenants fighting in eviction courts. Typically, the right to legal representation is only guaranteed in criminal cases, unless residents can afford to foot the bill.

“It is absolutely not enough,” Zaneri said.

But the resolution in San Pablo took an unlikely turn. Zaneri said the Richmond Land Trust, a community housing organization, is poised to raise the funds to purchase Porto Apartments when the landlord sells the property in the coming months, in an effort to permanently preserve the units as affordable housing.

“​​It’s extremely rare for tenants to go into an eviction case and come out of it in a better position than when they went in,” she said, adding that these types of “non-market” solutions are starting to gain momentum as a way to address California’s housing crisis. “This doesn’t happen without organizing. Our members have been able to get victories like this, but it takes a lot of work.”

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