Aerial view of San Jose
The San Jose City Council will discuss how to spend $30 million raised by Measure E, the property transfer tax increase.

    San Jose city leaders approved a citywide rent freeze after an hours-long debate that ended in a 7-4 vote Tuesday night.

    The vote comes after last week’s attempt to implement a rent suspension for San Jose families financially affected by COVID-19 was quickly struck down over concerns the proposal violated the Constitution.

    Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Magdalena Carrasco authored the rent freeze initiative instead, which calls for a moratorium on rent increases for all rent-controlled properties and mobile home parks starting on April 21.

    But several councilmembers voiced concerns that the proposal, which would give tenants until Dec. 31 to pay their rents back, posed a significant burden to mom and pop landlords.

    Councilmembers Johnny Khamis, Lan Diep, Dev Davis and Pam Foley voted against, advocating on behalf of property owners who they said had no intention of raising rents or were already negotiating with their tenants to pay back their debts. Waiting until the end of the year, they added, would be a significant strain.

    “I totally support the rent freeze,” Foley said. “But I do have a concern about postponing or delaying this until December 31 — that’s putting a long burden on individuals. While there are anecdotal stories of people who are increasing rent out there, that is the exception to the situation and not the rule.”

    But Councilmember Maya Esparza said the new policy was meant for those landlords who refuse to work with their tenants.

    “This is not for the majority of landlords who are out there doing their best to cope,” Esparza said. “We are hearing stories about retaliation against tenants…the fact that it exists in these unprecedented times of a global pandemic to me is not acceptable and it’s our job to really protect the ones who are most vulnerable.”

    Peralez and Carrasco introduced the idea to implement a rent suspension last week, saying the state’s temporary ban on evictions doesn’t go far enough to protect tenants. That proposal would have canceled rent for 90 days as long as a tenant could prove they are unable to make their payments. The new proposal does not cancel rent, but prevents rent costs from rising.

    The city is encouraging landlords to temporarily discount rents on the terms that the initial rent controlled rate will not be affected once the rent freeze is lifted. Under the city’s rent control policy, landlords can legally increase rents up to 5 percent once a year.

    On average, a two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in San Jose costs $1,979 per month, Carrasco and Peralez said, which means two months of nonpayment would cost a tenant nearly $4,000. But with 56 percent of San Jose households making under $50,000 a year, the pair argued that hefty back payments would leave many families spending more than half of their income to pay for a single month of rent once the emergency health order is lifted.

    The City Council will return next week to enact the new ordinance.

    Rent eviction extension

    Councilmembers on Tuesday also unanimously approved extending the city’s moratorium on evictions to May 31 and enforcing stronger protections for tenants to further protect low-income households and prevent exacerbating the region’s homeless and housing crises.

    The first 30-day eviction moratorium was set to expire on April 17, but now will last to the end of May, nearly a month after the region’s shelter-in-place order expires on May 3.

    The state’s shelter-in-place order bans evictions, but does allow landlords to start the eviction process by filing notices and lawsuits to drive tenants out once the ban has been lifted on May 31.

    The city will enforce stronger tenant protections for undocumented immigrants and people who are affected by or sick with COVID-19. The new protections prevent landlords from starting the eviction process and from harassing and retaliating against tenants who are unable to provide sufficient COVID-19 related documentation. Additionally, tenants will now have up to 7 days — instead of 3 — to inform their landlord they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 if they’ve been served an eviction notice.

    Many people who can’t provide evidence are undocumented immigrants who work as street vendors or laborers and do not have proof of income or a bank account, Carrasco said, where an employer can write a letter as verifiable documentation. Now, the city will create a “template affidavit” that undocumented tenants can give their landlords when they can’t prove they’ve been affected by the virus.

    “I’m not in the business of bankrupting our landlords,” Carrasco added. “But I’m on the other end, getting phone calls from families who are really stressed out, who don’t have any income whatsoever, not going to get any benefits, no stimulus check, no unemployment benefits. These are the same folks…that not only have they been harassed by their landlords to pay up, but have been threatened to be evicted.”

    City officials plan on meeting with various housing groups representing landlords and tenants as well as the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley to develop new strategies to help the tenants pay off their rent, such as holding a mediation program, offering payment plans, initiating a repayment period, or prioritizing city resources for the most vulnerable residents.

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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