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.
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.
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?’”
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.”
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.
“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 due to his city-provided housing allowance. “I cannot stand for that,” he scowled. “How can you adjudicate evictions for a taxpayer when the taxpayer is holding your mortgage?”
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.”
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.”
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”.
John Earl is the publisher and editor for the Surf City Voice and Poseidon Town. In the late 1980s, he covered local politics for the Huntington Beach News. In 2005, he was a founding member and first president of Residents for Responsible Desal, which he left in 2006 to become editor of the print newspaper, OC Voice.