San Diego is ready to declare ‘tenure is a civil right’ and strengthen the rights of employers

San Diego considered a wide range of new tenant protections Monday at a special meeting as homelessness and financial concerns for renters persist.

As part of the meeting, the city council also worked on a resolution to declare “housing a human right” – which received support from various tenant, homeless and environmental groups – but upset some landlord groups.

The council did not formalize anything, but held the meeting to consider future action. The new laws and resolution must be reviewed by the city attorney’s office and voted on at a later date that has not been determined. The governing body also discussed forming a committee to discuss some of the ideas further.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said the meeting was a good first step and envisioned the city would be in a better position today if it had declared housing a right 20 to 30 years ago.

“Do we want the city to be a city that is OK with suffering and indignins on our streets?” he said. “Or do we want to be a city — and willing to go on record — that says everyone deserves a roof over their head?”

The draft resolution declared that San Diego would support policies to keep people housed through affordable, accessible and livable homes. Small landlords, and lettings groups, raised concerns about the policy and hoped proposals would be reworked before being voted on.

Jeff Faller, president of the landlord group Apartment Owners Association of California, argued that declaring housing a right would cause San Diego to trample on property owner rights.

“Housing as a human right should also be known as ‘free housing as a human right’,” he said.

Unlike state law, San Diego does not require landlords to pay one month’s rent, or waive the last month, when a tenant receives a no-fault eviction notice. For that reason, many council members said the city needs to update its laws.

The majority of the meeting was spent on a framework of new laws that would give tenants stronger protections. Many landlords put up a united front against the new proposals, claiming they were not consulted on the framework, but offered to make themselves available for future discussions.

“We want the right time to provide clarity and depth to the concerns we have,” said Lisa Mason, director of asset management at Baldwin & Sons.

There is no guarantee that the new ideas proposed will remain the same when, or if, the council votes on them. Some of the new rules the council considered on Monday:

Some of the proposals stemmed from questions that arose as the city aimed to prevent evictions during COVID-19. During the pandemic, a landlord was allowed to evict a tenant if they planned to move a family member into the property. Some tenants claimed that a family member never moved in. The draft ordinance states that if a family member does not occupy the property for 90 days, the evicted tenant should be given the right of first refusal to return.

Tenants and advocates shared stories of the difficulties of living in San Diego with rising rents and difficulty staying in the same unit for extended periods of time.

“I’m constantly in fear of losing my home,” said Safy Hassan, a Somali immigrant who said through a translator that she has lived in San Diego for 20 years.

Rafael Bautista, of San Diego Tenants United, took advantage of the rally on Halloween by wearing a pig mask, which he said represented the evils of capitalism. He said no-fault evictions are on the rise across the region, and the tenants’ union is trying to help by telling landlords when they’re in violation.

“We’re talking about property owners who have far too much power,” Bautista said, “exploiting the vulnerabilities of San Diego residents.”

Many mom-and-pop landlords called in to say they too were dealing with rising costs and already felt overwhelmed by a patchwork of state and local laws. Lucinda Lilley, president of the Southern California Rental Housing Association, said property owners are working hard to work with tenants who may be struggling with rent and other issues. She said her group was committed to helping the city come up with new laws.

Council members said after nearly four hours of public comment that they were open to working with landlords as they consider new laws to strengthen protections for tenants.