*This article appeared on the front page of the East Palo Alto Today newspaper. Read the summer/fall 2016 issue here.*
Displacement is a big issue in East Palo Alto and many city residents say they’re being driven to homelessness. Many of these residents complained to the East Palo Alto City Council at several council meetings that they are being given 10-day eviction notices, which they say are unfair and unwarranted.
In justifying the eviction notices, members of the city’s code enforcement staff emphasized that illegal garage conversions and second units can be extremely dangerous. But, residents at the council meetings asked: What are the families living in them supposed to do if they simply cannot afford to live elsewhere? Do they risk living in these units or do they risk living on the streets? Why aren’t home owners given enough time to try to legalize their second units before eviction notices are handed out?
East Palo Alto residents and community leaders have been urging the East Palo Alto City Council to respond to these questions and to find a solution to the rising number of families that are facing displacement in the city because of the city’s code enforcement activities.
After listening to a heated discussion on this issue at its October 18 city council meeting, the East Palo Alto City council approved a motion to implement a task force that would help legalize second units and would also review ways to reduce displacement and extend 10-day evictions to 30 days. The council’s approval of the motion also came after it had heard the presentation of a Community White Paper that offered community solutions and a city staff presentation that was designed to justify the issuance of eviction notices.
The Community White Paper was presented before the city council by Stewart Hyland an action leader with the St. Francis of Assisi Faith in Action Bay Area and Jacqueline Ramirez from Project Sentinel and Faith in Action Bay Area.
As part of their short-term solution, the authors of the Community White Paper requested a two-year moratorium that would provide “immediate relief for affected families from 10-day displacement.”
Ramirez explained that the moratorium also “stops orders for demolition and allows time for [neighborhood landlords] to cure imminent hazards and begin permitting process.” The report claimed that terms such as “imminent hazard” is used often, but residents are not quite clear to what it’s specifically referring.
According to Hyland and Ramirez, the long-term solution would provide amnesty and it would enable landlords to feel comfortable coming forward and reporting their second units.
“Neighborhood landlords are being penalized for trying to provide housing and families are being divided with some parents living in their cars on the street,” the report stated.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Ora Colbert Johnson, an audience member went over her allotted two-minute time to speak and began shouting, that the council didn’t really care about the residents. Her comments inspired some in the audience to cheer and become disruptive.
In response to the outburst, Mayor Donna Rutherford said, “We understand that we have a housing crisis in Silicon Valley, which is magnified in East Palo Alto. Together we’re working towards finding solutions to this regional issue to build more affordable housing. We also want to ensure that everyone has a safe and healthy place to live. The city is working forward, engaging our residents in a discussion to ensure that code enforcement efforts are part of the solution in creating safe and healthy housing opportunities and protecting our residents from fire and health hazards.”
Rutherford said that she understood that this is an emotional issue for many, but urged the audience to be respectful towards one another and to follow the law.
In response to the concerns of the residents, Assistant City Manager, Sean Charpentier, and Chief Building Official, Chris Gale, provided an extensive presentation in which they outlined the code enforcement rules.
Charpentier began by highlighting that East Palo Alto does a lot more to provide affordable housing than any other city. He pointed out that “40% of the housing units in EPA are affordable.” He called this statistic “remarkable” and “revolutionary.”
Charpentier also explained that the city receives approximately three complaints each day dealing with “illegal structures, overcrowding, lack of parking on the streets, garbage and trash, and concerns about fire and safety access.”
Although the White Paper requested a moratorium, Charpentier said that it was not possible to take this route, because the California State Code states that the building department of every city must enforce the California Building Standards Code (CBSC). In addition, he said, “section D specifies that a discontinued use or vacation of a dangerous or illegal structure is required” and “it must occur within 10 days.”
Charpentier concluded by stating that “there is no amnesty for building code or planning violations.”
In his presentation, Gale introduced the code enforcement team and stated each officer’s name, years of experience, ethnicity, and the different languages each spoke. He said that each officer handles an average of eighty cases. He also emphasized that the officers take several classes and extensive training to ensure that they are prepared for the position.
Gale showed a series of twenty-six photos depicting examples of safety hazards in various second units and garage conversions. The photos had red arrows that pointed to the safety and hazard violations that were cited.
Some of the safety concerns in the photos included exposed wires, lack of ventilation, mold and unsanitary conditions.
The photos were followed by references to several news articles about previous fire hazards and injuries that were caused by illegal constructions. Gale said that a few of these incidents happened in East Palo Alto and led to displaced families.
But, Gale added that all hope is not lost, since many of the homes can and have been salvaged as was shown during the presentation. He also said that during city inspections, residents are provided with contact information of shelters, legal services, and a list of vacant units that are leased below market rate.
Despite their efforts, Charpentier’s and Gale’s presentation received mostly negative feedback from audience members.
Many of the audience members criticized Gale’s photos, stating that he only showed extreme cases and that most of the residents being impacted by evictions and fees are nowhere near as bad as the ones shown in the presentation.
Others stated that they didn’t have a problem being told about the violations, since they seek safety as well, but they added that the aggressive way, in which they have been approached by officers, is simply unacceptable.
In addressing Gale directly, Council member Carlos Romero stated that giving displaced families legal references hasn’t quite worked. Referring a family to a two-bedroom apartment that rents for $2,000 is not a viable solution,when they only paid $800 for a garage, Romero explained.“They simply can’t afford it,” Romero said.
Vice Mayor Larry Moody reminded everyone that most of the inspections taking place are due to complaints from the community. He said that code enforcement officers are not there to displace anyone,but that there is a group of people who are“sick and tired of folks violating the law.”
“You’d be surprised how many people want us to enforce the law,” said Mayor Rutherford, who added that she thinks the city and the residents can work something out.
At the end of the discussion, the council and some of the community members present seemed to agree that they are willing to work together to resolve the issue.