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County supervisors bolster tenant eviction protections

Sonoma County Supervisors last week adopted the county’s strongest tenant protections to date, outpacing new state standards while aiming to keep most local renters safe from eviction during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes nearly 11 months after the Board of Supervisors passed the county’s first pandemic-related renter protections last March, and it bolsters statewide protections signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 29.

Under the new rules, which apply to residential property countywide, landlords are prohibited from issuing evictions unless there are demonstrable health and safety concerns or when a property is removed from the rental market through a sale or other use. The rules do not affect commercial property.

During tense lobbying ahead of the Board of Supervisors’ vote Tuesday, renters and tenant advocates sought stronger protections from property owners and landlords who they say have assets to fall back on during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents who own property and other landlord-aligned interest groups pushed back, saying onerous, confusing rules would discourage homeowners from getting into the rental market, exacerbating the housing crisis.

Neither group got what they wanted, and supervisors sought to lower the temperature even while praising residents for their passion and advocacy.

“This is a very emotional subject. People were very open and honest, and for the most part, very respectful,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board chair. “I would just remind everyone that we are all humans. We are all members of this community. I do fundamentally believe we are all in this together.”

The board’s decision last Tuesday, which came as an amendment to the county ordinance passed at the start of the pandemic last March, ratchets up protections for renters who previously were protected from eviction for nonpayment only if their inability to pay rent was directly tied to COVID-19.

It also closes loopholes in recent state legislation that allows landlords to evict tenants for a range of reasons, including unauthorized sublets, unauthorized pets and nonpayment for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

Property owners and their advocates said county leaders should simply stick with state rules, rather than infringing on property rights for small-time landlords who depend on rent payments to meet their own mortgage obligations.

“It’s already very complicated. If you start adding more at the local level, it makes it even harder for landlords to keep up,” said Cynthia Murray, executive director of the North Bay Leadership Council, a business coalition of which The Press Democrat is a member. “Please don’t make this any more complicated than it needs to be.”

Some renter advocates were sympathetic to property owners’ plight. One man said the relationship between the two was “parasitic,” and he urged the board to give preference to tenants, a group of residents that does not have assets to fall back on.

Tenant advocates sought a near-universal ban on evictions, pushing the board to support a measure that would have prohibited evictions in all cases except where health and safety of the tenant was at risk. They expressed concern that, if given the opportunity, landlords would use any excuse to replace tenants.

“Landlords will say whatever they need to. They’ll say they’re moving in. That’s unenforceable,” said Diana Kingsbury, a tenant leader with the Sonoma County Tenant’s Union. “Putting people out on the streets, or putting them in their cars is not OK. We can do so much better in Sonoma County.”

Supervisor Chris Coursey and Supervisor Susan Gorin had previously signaled support for the near-universal ban on evictions, but both compromised to ensure the four-fifths vote necessary to approve protections Tuesday. Coursey, lamenting the pandemic’s toll on the county’s health and economy, said the board needed to act.

“If we’re going to get ahead of this, we need to do everything in our power to get this pandemic under control,” Coursey said. “It’s going to take all of us.”

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