Petaluma renters give tearful plea prior to City Council’s move toward renter protections

The move to prioritize tenants’ rights came after the cost of rental housing in Petaluma rose by 14.5%.|

Just an hour before the Petaluma City Council unanimously decided to prioritize enacting greater renter protections as part of the council’s list of key goals, local renters and tenant rights advocates called for officials to tighten eviction restrictions.

In a rally hosted by the North Bay Organizing Project outside Petaluma’s City Hall at 5 p.m. Monday, more than a dozen local residents and housing justice organization representatives shared their own stories of eviction and urged the City Council to prioritize renter protections as growing number of residents face eviction due to the ongoing financial hardships inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve called Petaluma home for so long and it has always been our dream to put roots down here. But the reality is that we would have to leave our town because rent is too expensive. And that part breaks my heart,” said Aura Aguilar, a Petaluma renter and board member of the Sonoma County Tenants Union. Aguilar currently lives in a granny unit on the city’s west side with her fiance. “We work hard. We really care about this city and we really care about this community.”

Advocates pushed for the City Council to prioritize passing a “just cause” eviction ordinance, a measure that has grown in popularity as a means to block landlords from evicting tenants except in cases of noncompliance with major terms of lease agreements. The measures are usually instituted as a way to close a loophole in the state’s Ellis Act, which allows property owners to evict tenants under the auspices of removing the rental property from the market in order to sell.

Today, there is little recourse for property owners who use that loophole to evict tenants, only to place the property back on the rental market with higher rents - bypassing rental increase caps in the process.

Petaluma would be the first Sonoma County city to enact a just cause ordinance. And the City Council’s move marks a departure from the posture of city leadership since the Council last considered renter protections.

In February 2018, the City Council voted against enacting a “just cause” ordinance after property owners argued that it would strip landlords of their power to evict troublesome tenants.

But the latest move to prioritize renters’ rights comes after two years of pandemic-era impacts, and as the cost of rental housing in Petaluma rose by 14.5% between January 2021 and January 2022.

Margaret DeMatteo, who works with Legal Aid Sonoma County, said she is elated by the City Council’s decision to not only strengthen Ellis Act protections, but to pair it with an amendment that will tighten the mobile home rent stabilization ordinance.

“Getting this onto the agenda is the start, and a sign that Petaluma can be an inclusive place to live for all people,” DeMatteo said Tuesday morning. “This vote makes Petaluma a beacon for other Sonoma (County) jurisdictions who want to preserve existing housing and create stability for our communities.”

Prior to the Council’s decision Monday, Brooke Arteaga gave a tearful testimony of her own eviction experience, saying she struggled financially after COVID-19 exposure forced her to take extensive time away from her job as an in-home caregiver. Arteaga, 58, who has lived in Petaluma since 1979 and has been renting the same house for six years, said she then received threats from her landlord, which then led to a 60-day eviction notice.

But to her gratitude, she received assistance from Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which is the primary resource for low-income tenants facing eviction countywide.

“I seriously would be (living) in my car today if it wasn’t for (Legal Aid) and Petaluma People Services Center,” Arteaga said as she called on Petaluma officials to move forward with legislation that would make Ellis Act evictions illegal.

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

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