Petaluma approves ‘just cause’ ordinance with 4-2 vote amid split support

The approved ordinance would be effective through March 1, 2023.|

As the Petaluma City Council works on its top priorities for the next fiscal year, council members on Monday approved a long-awaited ordinance that would create more protections for renters. But some council members agreed there is more to be done.

In a 4-2 vote, with council member Kevin McDonnell’s recusal due to conflict of interest, the council members approved an ordinance at their Aug. 1 meeting that would close loopholes in the state’s Ellis Act and prevent landlords from evicting tenants without providing a reason.

“It is very clear that there are people that are being evicted or there are people who live in fear of being evicted,” Mayor Teresa Barrett said during the meeting. “And it is also very clear that there are very good landlords, who are running a business and they want to have good tenants and they want to keep those tenants. Those are not the people this ordinance is aimed at.”

But without unanimous approval, the ordinance requires a second reading, which would not occur until at least Sept. 12, which means the ordinance wouldn’t go into effect until mid-October. And with Sonoma County COVID-19-related eviction protections expiring Sept. 30, that leaves a two-week window where Petaluma renters would be vulnerable to unreasonable evictions.

Councilmembers Mike Healy and Dave King, who both voted against the approval, suggested an emergency ordinance so the council would be able to gather more feedback and hold more discussions to eliminate confusion over what exactly the ordinance would entail. But the suggestion was not considered Monday.

“I plan to reiterate that my offer of supporting the urgency ordinance to continue the county protections here for 90 days is still on the table, and then there wouldn’t be any gap for coverage,” Healy said in a Wednesday afternoon phone call.

According to the staff report, Petaluma’s ordinance would provide more protections than the state’s Tenant Protection Act and Ellis Act, while also “preserving the rights of landlords to enforce the terms of their rental agreements.”

Property owners will still hold the right to evict tenants in cases of noncompliance with major terms of lease agreements, an aspect of the ordinance that became the center of concern and confusion among property owners who speculated they may not be able to cut ties with problematic tenants.

“While the majority of my tenants are responsible and pay their rent on time, I have had a few cases where the tenant’s dog destroyed the property and downstairs neighbor’s property, didn’t pay their rent, refused to let the owner come in to do gardening ... all breaches of the rental agreement,” said a property manager and broker with Sperling Real Estate in a letter posted to the city’s website prior to Monday’s meeting. “When things get that bad, the tenant normally stops talking to you, or starts harassing you, making my job stressful and difficult.”

The move to approve the ordinance comes after the City Council voted in early May to make a tenant protection ordinance a top 10 priority for the coming year. In February 2018, council members voted against enacting a “just cause” ordinance.

One of the main issues the council appeared split on was whether or not they supported protection against eviction for the purpose of putting a rental property back on the market after some property owners said they should be allowed to tell a tenant they need to vacate if they no longer want to keep the property, or if they want to move onto the property themselves.

The Ellis Act was enacted to preserve landlords’ right to evict tenants if the landlord decides to remove their dwelling units from the rental housing market. But, as the staff report states, tenant advocacy groups and others argue that landlords have used the Ellis Act to evict tenants just so they can temporarily withdraw from the rental housing market before getting back in with increased rental fees. For an Ellis Act eviction, written notice of the eviction must be served 120 days prior, or one year in advance if the tenant is disabled or elderly and has lived in the residence for more than a year. An eviction notice must state the tenants’ rights.

Under the proposed ordinance, tenants receive eviction protections after they have resided in the 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 lawfully lived there for one year.

“Tenants are the most vulnerable in our community,” said Karym Sanchez, executive director of the Northbay Organizing Project. “A just cause eviction ordinance is absolutely necessary to protect the well-being of families who rent. This ordinance will demonstrate that we value the well-being and the flourishing of families, above the profit of a few.

Petaluma’s ordinance, as described in the staff report, also exempts any unit deemed an affordable housing unit, units that are owned by a government agency, units where a tenant is employed by the landlord for the purpose of managing the property, and housing that is the owner’s primary residence, where a tenant shares living space with the landlord.

Another term in Petaluma’s eviction protection ordinance is that a tenant may not be evicted within a school year if the tenant or tenant’s household has a child in kindergarten through 12th grade or the tenant works as an educator.

Any notice of a rental termination would also be required to be provided in both English and Spanish.

The approved ordinance would be effective through March 1, 2023.

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

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