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September 26, 2022

Supervisors signal support for tenant protection rules

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—One woman lost her job and couldn’t pay rent, and then found herself in a battle with her landlord, who didn’t believe her story and threatened eviction. 

A family financially affected by the Covid-19 pandemic found themselves battling a landlord who raised their rent, and then threatened to call Immigrations and Customs Enforcement if they fought the increase.

Some tenants live with problems such as rats because they don’t want to complain and risk angering their property managers.

These stories were just a few examples of bad behavior by landlords the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors heard Tuesday before unanimously approving the first reading of a new ordinance that would prohibit retaliatory moves by those who rent out apartments and houses.

The ordinance will be heard a second time on Sept. 20.

The new set of rules comes weeks after a report showing Santa Cruz County as the second most expensive place to rent in the U.S. Here, 81% of very low-income and 92% of extremely low-income households are paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs, according to county officials.

Zav Hirshfield of Santa Cruz-based Tenant Sanctuary says he speaks to 10-12 renters weekly, many of whom live in fear of standing up for themselves when faced with problems as tenants.

“Fear of retaliation is the dominant reason that people do not assert the rights they have under the law,” Hirshfield said. “Any protection that will make tenants feel that they are safe in asserting their rights and do not have to fear retaliation for just asking that their landlord follow existing law I think would be an improvement to the lives of renting residents in this county.”

County leaders say the new set of rules will give renters legal recourse when they are subject to harassment by their landlords or property owners.

The rules still allow landlords to evict problem tenants, when done legally.

Among other things, the ordinance would prohibit increasing rent, fail to provide services or repairs, release private information about tenants or give tenants false or misleading information in an attempt to evict them.

Landlords who violate the rules could be forced to pay attorneys’ fees and other costs as ordered by the court. 

Board Chair Manu Koenig said the County has been proactive in helping tenants through the Covid-19 pandemic, having distributed more than $26 million countywide in rent relief for residents.

Koenig said the new rules should balance the rights of tenants with those of property owners and landlords, and removed a section of the ordinance that would have made evicting badly behaved tenants harder.

“I recognize that it’s a difficult role to thread the needle between tenants’ rights and also landlords’ ability to protect other tenants in the building and do their jobs as good property managers,” he said.

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