May 22, 2012

Merced City Council repeals renter protection ordinance

An ordinance touted as protection for renters was repealed over concerns it violated private property rights following a marathon City Council meeting that ended late Monday.

Claiming the it was a drag on the housing market, the Merced City Council voted 4-3 to repeal the Just Cause for Eviction ordinance it passed late last year.

After an emotional and sometime contentious five-hour meeting, Mayor Stan Thurston, and council members Tony Dossetti, Mike Murphy and Josh Pedrozo voted to repeal the ordinance. Council members Bill Blake, Mary-Michal Rawling and Noah Lor cast the dissenting votes.

The vote came before a packed City Council chambers of renters, landlords, real estate professionals and other residents. Many in the audience had come to urge the council to reopen McNamara Pool in South Merced and were told that would happen next month.

While some left after the pool reopening announcement, the chambers remained full as the focus of the meeting shifted to the fate of the Just Cause for Eviction ordinance.

It was brought back to the table after a majority of council members voted to reconsider it. It had faced heavy opposition from real estate professionals who see it as an affront to private property rights, and equally strong support from those who fear being forced from their homes.

Thurston said he felt the ordinance was "unnecessary."

"It can interfere with the logical marketplace of the real estate system," he said. "And it was going to delay the normalization of the real estate industry here in Merced."

Thurston said it would be almost impossible for a buyer, who wants to fix up a home purchased out of foreclosure and rent it as an upgraded unit, to make those improvements with a tenant in the home. With the ordinance, he said, a landlord couldn't evict due to foreclosure.

He said the federal law, Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, was sufficient because it provides tenants of foreclosures with a 90-day eviction notice.

However, Blake, who had supported the ordinance from the beginning, called the law a "very reasonable ordinance."

"It had a lot of good foundation for public policy. It was designed to do good, and it was designed to keep people in homes and not have more empty homes around," he explained.

Blake said repealing the ordinance will have a negative impact on Merced. "We're going to have more vacant homes and we will have problems," he said.

He said what struck him was the real estate agents at the meeting had no anecdotal examples of problems with the law. "None of the Realtors got up and said, 'I had to do this,' or 'go to court,' " Blake said.

But those in Merced's real estate industry who had come out in force against the ordinance at Monday night's meeting, were happy about the council's decision.

"We're all for private property rights, and we felt it was an assault on private property rights," said Terri Miller, 2012 president of the Merced County Association of Realtors. "We're very happy the City Council saw it for what it was. They addressed the facts in their speech, not emotions, but facts."

But Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that introduced the ordinance to the council last year, said he was disappointed by the council's vote.

"The mayor and council members Murphy, Dossetti and Pedrozo sided with big banks and their real estate agents over the interests of Merced residents," he said. "We intend to defend the law."

He said the organization would continue advocating in Merced. Fortunately, he said, the voters in California have the ultimate say.

He plans on having a referendum on the council's decision and gather the required number of signatures to prevent the repeal ordinance to take effect.

"That would force it back to the council. If they didn't correct their mistake, it would go to the November ballot," he said.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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