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Tenants picket for concessions at Hotel Petaluma


Residents of Hotel Petaluma are pondering a variety of outcomes as the hotel's owners pursue a change from single occupancy room leasing to a more traditional hotel rental policy.

While many residents have found new housing, and others have opted to stay on under the new, costlier nightly rates, some occupants haven't yet arrived at a plan of action. One group, Sonoma County Solidarity Network, is organizing protests, such as a picket held Wednesday, while another, the community based human services provider Petaluma People Services Center (PPSC), has been helping residents to understand their rights and options under the law.

According to Elece Hempel, Executive Director of PPSC, "every situation has to be approached on a case by case basis."

PPSC runs the renter's rights program for Sonoma County and has been involved in housing issues at the hotel on a number of occasions. In fact, Hempel said, the hotel's current owner, Terry Andrews, received landlord education and information from PPSC Housing Specialists after he purchased the historic but rundown hotel in October. PPSC offers classes to landlords that cover "what's fair, and just, and how to follow the rules," explained Hempel.

"Most landlords don't like to be told what to do," Hempel added, "but we explain to them the ramifications of not complying with the law and they usually see the benefits of working within that framework." According to Hempel, Andrews was no exception.

PPSC staff has made several trips to meet with residents of the hotel to help them understand their options. Some residents qualify for low-income housing, but many do not. PPSC also offers a rental assistance program, providing first and last months rents for those who qualify. So far, said Hempel, "only a handful of the hotel residents have come in to apply."

PPSC has also referred several residents to PEP Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to providing quality affordable housing. So far, PEP has only had a few inquiries.

Some of the residents are already dealing with health or financial issues, Hempel explains, and the 30- and 60-day notices to vacate they received from hotel management only compounded those existing challenges.

In one case, PPSC is helping a resident by recruiting volunteers to help him move his belongings into new housing and coordinating with Joseph Rye of Petaluma Transit to help facilitate transportation to medical appointments in Napa using existing paratransit programs.

Meanwhile, Carl Patrick of the Sonoma County Solidarity Network (SCSN), a workers and tenants rights group connected with Occupy Santa Rosa, says the group got involved when tenants reached out in late February.

Patrick's group has organized a public meeting on March 26th at St. Vincent Church at 6 p.m. According to Patrick, the group hopes to "form a 'Solidarity Committee' to organize actions and public pressure" against the hotel owners to meet the group's demands. Those demands include re-location assistance for all tenants being evicted (which they estimate at $1,000 per tenant) as well as the return of rental deposits, and for residents who wish to remain in the hotel to be allowed to do so at their old rental rates.

They also held a picket demonstration in front of the hotel on Wednesday.

According to Hempel, the hotel has thus far met or exceeded the legal requirements, returning tenants' deposits as they vacate, yet Patrick expressed skepticism on this point stating, "we heard from many tenants that they did not expect to receive their deposits back."

Jessica Andrews, hotel marketing manager and daughter of Terry Andrews, refuted this, saying that the hotel is returning deposits as it goes through rooms after tenants have moved out, often earlier than the 21 days required by law.

Additionally, Jessica Andrews pointed out that "tenants are staying on who have agreed to the new [more expensive] rates," adding that these rates reflect new and improved amenities. Andrews added that they were glad to have long-term residents stay on, since she feels they contribute to the hotel community.

Regarding the planned protest, Andrews was unmoved, but accepting. "That's fine, they have their right to free speech, but we're not changing our stance," she said. "... we're not upending peoples lives, but trying to improve their living conditions."

Meanwhile, PPSC is continuing to help displaced residents pursue other housing arrangements.

"My goal is for the residents to be able to live happily," Hempel explained, "in a new place where they actively want to be."

"Some of those who have moved have been delighted by the change, because they hadn't realized how many compromises they were making by living in the hotel," she added.

Hempel encouraged tenants or anyone wishing to help a tenant to contact PPSC at 765-8488.

(Contact Liam Nelson at argus@arguscourier.com)