Just-cause ordinance to take effect next month in Petaluma, a 1st for Sonoma County

Under the just-cause ordinance, tenants will receive eviction protections after they have resided in a unit for six months, a first for a Sonoma County city.|

Petaluma on Monday became the first Sonoma County city to adopt a just-cause ordinance in an effort to protect renters from being evicted without proper reasoning or notification from property owners.

With the new ordinance not going into effect until mid-October, the City Council voted Monday to also enact a stop-gap measure that will extend tenant protections after countywide eviction shields lose effect at the end of the month.

Petaluma’s new tenant protection ordinance will be effective through March 1, 2023, and will go back for another vote once the City Council seats its new members after the Nov. 8 election.

“I think anything we can do to keep people in homes and out of the ranks of the homeless is good,” Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said following the meeting. “I believe housing is a human right and being a landlord is an investment decision.”

Under the just-cause ordinance, tenants will receive eviction protections after they have resided in a unit for six months, unless the owner has the same lot as their primary residence, in which case the protections apply once the tenant has lived there for one year. The state only offers protections for tenants after one year of residence.

While the state’s Ellis Act allows property owners to evict tenants at any time if they intend to sell the property, Petaluma’s new ordinance will require the property owner to give the tenant 120 days of notice before the building or unit goes on the market.

A landlord also may not put a property on the market less than one year after giving notice if a tenant is 62 years or older, is disabled or during the school year if a household has a child under 18 or is an educator, per the new ordinance.

The City Council split its vote, 4-2, to approve the ordinance, with Council member Kevin McDonnell recused due to a conflict of interest. Council members Mike Healy and Dave King voted to oppose the ordinance.

“What strikes me is that staff did not do outreach to relevant stakeholders before (the ordinance) was brought forward,” Healy said Tuesday afternoon. “So the whole reason for the sunset on March 1 is to allow that kind of outreach to all the stakeholders to happen. My hope is that everyone will get into a room and come up with a consensus proposal that I’d be happy to support, but I think it was a huge misservice by staff to have put this together by only listening to one side.”

The move to approve the ordinance followed the City Council’s vote in early May to make tenant protections a top priority for the coming year.

Margaret DeMatteo, a housing policy attorney with Sonoma County Legal Aid, applauded the council’s approval. She said the ordinance’s adoption will “make Petaluma a place that is truly accessible for all.”

“As a community stakeholder who assists tenants and unhoused folks in Petaluma and the surrounding County with evictions and access to housing benefits, Legal Aid commends City Council for their commitment to comprehensive tenant protections,” DeMatteo told the Argus-Courier. “I am so grateful that our Petaluma clients will have the type of protections that are in place in over 29 other California cities and counties.”

Under the new ordinance, if a tenant is removed from a property after the owner said they would sell, the rental units cannot be rented again for the first five years under the same owner. That is unless the unit is offered at the same rate the tenant was paying following the eviction, and must first be offered to the evicted tenant.

Some property owners argued the new rules will only create strain on small investors and will end up “unduly burdening the rights of housing providers.”

“We’re left feeling that the ordinance, in its intention to further protect tenant rights, has too greatly limited the rights of small investment-property owners,” one property owner said in a letter posted to the city’s website prior to the Monday meeting. “These limitations have a profound financial impact on us and others like us: older adults who have kept the rents well below market rate for many years, who have always responded immediately and positively to tenant concerns, and who have repaired and maintained the property above and beyond what is required.”

Property owners can still evict tenants in cases of noncompliance with major terms of lease agreements under the new ordinance, but must give the tenant proper notice of removal. All rental termination will also be required in both English and Spanish.

The ordinance will not apply to tenants who live on a property or in a building owned by a governmental agency or for those in housing units considered affordable as defined in the California Health and Safety Code.

According to Petlauma City Attorney Eric Danly, affordability restrictions already offer protection for tenants in affordable units regarding the amount of rent they can be charged, and operators of the affordable properties “have a built-in incentive to avoid unnecessary evictions, because of the time and cost of screening eligible tenants, the loss of rental income that results from vacancies and the re-screening necessary to rent to eligible successor tenants.”

The new ordinance also does not apply to accessory dwelling units where a tenant has been residing for less than a year, renters who are employed by a landlord for the purpose of managing the property or a unit in which the owner resides with a tenant as their primary household.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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