Richmond council rejects suspending rent, mortgage payments

Richmond mayor, vice mayor face backlash over anti-Israel resolution 
Richmond City Hall

By Mike Kinney

Richmond City Council on Tuesday rejected an emergency order that would suspend all rents and mortgages in Richmond for the duration of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place. Instead, the council voted in favor of protections similar to what the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors passed earlier Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors passed an emergency law applying to all 19 cities and unincorporated areas, Supervisor John Gioia said in an eUpdate.

The law, according to the supervisor, prohibits evictions for nonpayment for residential and commercial tenants impacted physically or economically by the COVID-19 pandemic; bans “no-fault” evictions “except to protect the health and safety of the owner or another tenant, or to allow the owner or their immediate family to move into the residential unit”; temporarily freezes rent increases, although state law prevents the freeze from applying to single family homes or residences built within the last 15 years; provides tenants impacted by the pandemic a 120-day grace period to pay back rent; and nixes late fees for unpaid rent for impacted residents. These rules apply through May 31, unless extended by the Board of Supervisors.

Despite the County ordinance, which can be read in full here, a city can implement stricter rules protecting renters if it chooses.

While Richmond Councilmembers Melvin Willis and Eduardo Martinez proposed to suspend all rent and mortgage payments during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period, the rest of the council voted against the idea, concerned over its legality and the consequences of mounting unpaid debt.

Resident Leisa Johnson called the proposals “well-intentioned” but believes there are better solutions, such as a rental assistance program for struggling residents.

Mayor Tom Butt added that substantial protections for homeowners, renters and businesses relating to mortgages, rents and evictions have already been enacted by the federal government, Judicial Council of California, the governor and Contra Costa County – as well as Richmond.

“We are, in addition, a full rent control and just cause city,” the mayor said. He called proposals by his colleagues “redundant” and at times “unconstitutional.”

“They look at the pandemic as an opportunity to push through egregious legislation that almost totally targets landlords,” Butt said. “To them, landlords are fundamentally greedy and evil and need to be totally controlled and punished. I don’t think they grasp the economic reality that makes developers and building owners a critical part of the system that provides housing for everyone.”

Mayor Butt noted the challenges of homelessness and housing cost in California and believes everyone should share the burden.

“Take homelessness, if we put every California homeless person in an apartment with a rental rate of $1,500 a month, the total cost would be $2.7 billion a year,” the mayor said. “If that cost were borne by every California household, it would cost each of California’s 11 million households $20 a month. If the cost was shared progressively, the wealthier households would pay more, making it affordable for all. Why aren’t we doing this? Lack of political will and political leadership. We could solve this problem tomorrow in the state that is the world’s 5th largest economy and richest state.”