HB City Council on COVID-19: We’re NOT ALL in this Together

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Councilmember Erik Peterson (screen shot)

Why isn’t the Huntington Beach City Council helping renters during the pandemic caused by COVID-19, which has infected almost 800,000 people across the nation (including over 42,000 deaths) and 34,000 people in California (148 in Huntington Beach), causing 22 million workers to lose their jobs in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression—with no end in sight?

Instead of trying to help, the Council’s five-member majority turned its back on the city’s struggling renters at its March 31 special COVID-19 response meeting.

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Members Mike Posey, Erik Peterson, Lyn Semeta, Barbara Delgleize, and Patrick Brenden voted down an ordinance proposed by City Manager Oliver Chi to protect residential and commercial renters for 120 days from evictions caused by failure to pay rent due to the coronavirus (Jill Hardy and Kimberly Carr voted yes).

Chi’s proposed ordinance provided the enforcement mechanism that Governor Gavin Newsom’s shorter 60-day eviction moratorium (Executive Order N-37-20) left for local governments to figure out, according to City Attorney Michael Gates. It included fines up to $1,000 for non-compliance by landlords and tenants involved in residential and commercial leases.

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi (screen shot)

Chi did what city managers are supposed to do: look out for the well being of the city’s residents. Considering Surf City’s average apartment rent of $2,211, and the economic catastrophe caused by the COVID-19 virus, he was being prudent and prophetic.

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When the council met, 10 million people had filed unemployment claims nationwide. By April 11, 16.6 million workers had filed. By April 17, 22 million claims were filed nationwide including 2.7 million in California in the past four weeks. And those numbers will be much higher at the end of April.

As of April 7, 31% of renters around the country were unable to pay their rent and many other California cities were racing ahead of Surf City to help: 40 had passed eviction moratoriums and another 50 were considering it. At this writing (April 21), 18 California counties (not including Orange County) and 128 cities, including 7 in Orange County, have passed eviction moratoriums, many of them for residential and commercial tenants.

The Judicial Council of California, which governs the state’s court system, took much stronger action that stops evictions and housing foreclosures on paper but leaves it to plaintiffs to hire their own attorney for enforcement.

If over a quarter of California’s cities and the vast majority of its population are covered by eviction moratoriums, what’s stopping Huntington Beach from doing its part?

“These are unprecedented times,” Councilmember Carr told the Council, pointing to the tens of millions of unemployed Americans, including her daughter.

The HB Call Center (714-536-5978) set up 10 days earlier had received almost 1,000 calls, she said, “And one of the issues that came up over and over again is, ‘How can you help me out with the rent?’”

Top L to R: Councilmembers Kimberly Carr and Barbara Delgleize
Bottom: Patrick Brenden

The proposed ordinance offers to give residents a little help, she said, not take away personal freedoms. “I think we need to support this as city leaders. We need to show that we are all in this together.”

But Carr was speaking to the council majority that once voted for the right of citizens to kill the ocean with plastic trash, pandered to xenophobes and racists, and opposed affordable housing. They evoke free-market prattle and patriotism to cover their tracks and they aren’t the “all in this together” sort.

So it was no surprise when Councilmember Erik Peterson quoted Benjamin Franklin’s wise but malleable quip about liberty, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” turning it into a rallying call for about a hundred local protesters who, ironically, attended a pier-side protest to minimize the liberty lost to 42,000 unnecessary COVID-19 deaths.

“Seriously?” (Courtesy of Greg Diamond)

“I mean, we’re already taking that [liberty] away,” Peterson complained.

“When our Constitution was written, it didn’t say, ‘Hey, these apply unless we’re sick or unless this or that,’” he protested, “And so, the federal government has shut everyone down.”

To which Councilmember Posey said, “Bravo!”

Then he chastised Chi for agendizing the ordinance without a city council sponsor and falsely accused him of interfering with landlord-tenant lease negotiations and having a conflict of interest. “I cannot stand for that,” he scowled. “How can you adjudicate evictions for a taxpayer when the taxpayer is holding your mortgage?”

Councilmember Michael Posey (screen shot)

If the ordinance passes, he warned, “We’re just giving up our freedoms.”

Councilmember Barbara Delgleize, who sells real estate for a living, didn’t understand how the ordinance helps renters. The Governor’s moratorium was sufficient for residential renters, she said, but a moratorium for commercial rents might be acceptable.

Days later, I wrote on Facebook that I was “totally ashamed” of the council majority. Delgleize responded, stating that “people still need to pay their rent and if they can’t pay their rent now hopefully they can work out a payment plan with the owner. The city isn’t going to give them any money.”

For me, that was “an astonishingly selfish and politically motivated bunch of you-know-what.”

Scolding me for name calling, Delgleize expressed faith in the Governor’s moratorium order, which City Attorney Gates explained has no enforcement tools. “If a landlord is ignorant enough to break the law, he’ll have consequences,” she claimed, inexplicably.

Mayor Semeta, who is an attorney for business and property owners, said that despite holding “lots of compassion” for the city’s struggling renters she had faith that landlords would “do the right thing” because “They don’t want to see their property vacant.”

Then, picking up on Peterson’s liberty theme, she wrapped up her stand. “I don’t think I want to interfere with private property rights beyond what was put in force by the Governor.”

Mayor Lyn Semeta (screen shot)

But faith in landlords seems incredulous given that prior to the pandemic California tenants faced so many evictions due to unaffordable rent increases that dozens of cities passed eviction protection ordinances and Governor Newsom signed legislation to limit rent increases to 5 percent.

And a recent investigation by The Guardian newspaper disclosed that landlords continue to harass and evict tenants despite the recent state and locally enacted rent moratoriums, making it clear that tenants may need more help.

On the other hand, small property owners may also need help because they don’t have deep corporate pockets to pay for lawyers needed to evict deserving tenants.

So, why isn’t the City of Huntington Beach helping its renters (and landlords) during the current economic depression?

The answer might be found in the words of Bertrand Russell: “Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.”

Bertrand Russell By Anefo

As Delgleize said, the city won’t give residential tenants any money. Moratoriums or not, when the accumulated rent (or mortgage) comes due and meager stimulus payments (spent mostly on food) and extended unemployment benefits run out, somebody will still have pay.

Over 22 million Americans whose jobs were taken by the pandemic were already afflicted by the after-effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and Trumponomics. Currently, they see giant corporations getting another historic bailout paid for by working taxpayers like them and they wonder how they’re going to survive in the foreseeable future, let alone get back to “normal”.

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