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Richmond’s rent-freeze plan melts under scrutiny

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City gives freeze the cold shoulder

tract houses studding the hillside.
The city of Richmond.

The Richmond City Council considered this week whether to suspend both rent and mortgage payments in what would have been the most provocative housing protection measure taken by any Bay Area city in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, when it came time to vote, only the measure’s original sponsors backed it, with other Richmond legislators suggesting that the city lacks the authority to take such a step.

Councilmembers Melvin Willis and Eduardo Martinez, the two authors of the measure, wrote to Mayor Tom Butt on Tuesday urging him to back the payment freeze proposal, which would have applied to “all residential and small business rents, and all mortgage payments of homeowners, small landlords and small businesses.”

The two lawmakers said, “In an emergency, government is expected and required to take action to protect citizens even if it means suspending the normal rules and laws.”

Willis and Martine argued that since shelter-in-place orders have endangered housing security, the East Bay city should employ equally extraordinary measures to relieve that insecurity.

“Extreme solutions are always controversial,” said Martinez at Tuesday’s online Richmond City Council meeting, adding that “business as usual solutions are palatable” only to those with little to lose.

Lawmakers in other Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, have floated similar ideas, but most city bodies feel that local governments don’t have authority over such things. State law oversees rental rules, and a mortgage pause would likely require federal intervention.

Willis and Martinez cited legal opinions from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which earlier in the month pushed for San Jose to enact a similar rent moratorium.

“In times of crisis, local governments have extraordinary power to preserve the life, health, safety, and wellbeing of their people” the foundation wrote in a letter signed by four attorneys, which alleges that a rent freeze and mortgage stoppage qualify as “emergency price controls” within a city’s authority.

Several members of the public called into Tuesday’s online Richmond City Council meeting to press the city to adopt the rent freeze too. But despite these opinions, almost the entire body was firmly against the idea.

“I agree with the intent of this,” said Councilmember Jael Myrick before the vote, “but it’s hard for me to believe we have the authority.”

Myrick predicted that such a move would only bring legal disaster down upon the city.

Councilmember Nat Bates, openly annoyed that the debate was even happening, said, “We are not a regional government, we are not a state, we are not federal,”

He added, “We are the small fish in the fry, and [...] why I’m not hearing that is beyond me.”

Richmond lawmakers instead suggested focusing on supporting federal plans for housing relief, such as Minnesota Congressperson Ilhan Omar’s bill that would cancel rents nationwide.