.Fairfax becomes first jurisdiction in Marin to pass rent control ordinance.

Renters in Fairfax breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when the town council approved two ordinances. One caps rent increases and the other provides strong measures to prevent arbitrary evictions, commonly known as a “just cause” eviction ordinance. 

Faced with rising rents and inflation, the Marin Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been pushing local jurisdictions to approve renter protections, viewing state laws as inadequate, especially for the current economic environment.

“The state’s rent cap is way too high, and its just cause eviction [provision] has loopholes,” Curt Ries, co-chair of the Marin DSA, said in an interview.

The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Marin County is now over $2,500, according to Apartment List, an online rental marketplace. Rents rose almost 14% in 2021 but stayed relatively steady in 2022, Apartment List’s data shows.

Under AB 1482, a 2019 law impacting some residential rental units across the state, landlords are allowed to increase rents up to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) plus 5%, or 10%, whichever is lower, each year. The regional CPI increase was 5% year-over-year for April, triggering a whopping 10% rent increase for Marin renters in units covered by AB 1482. Renters in units not included in the state law may have seen even larger legal increases. 

Given this situation, it’s no wonder that 3,000 Marin residents—650 in Fairfax—have signed the DSA’s petition to support more stringent caps on rent increases and stronger just cause eviction protections.

The Marin DSA is currently urging San Anselmo and Larkspur to pass similar ordinances. And they don’t plan on stopping there.

Larkspur residents may be particularly receptive to renter protections, since more than half of them are tenants. Skylark Apartments, a 455-unit complex purchased by the Prime Group in February, has been aggressively raising rents, tenants say.

Skylark residents, fearing they would be priced out of their homes, quickly formed a tenants association at the end of February. The 200-member association has partnered with the DSA to put pressure on the Larkspur City Council to pass rent control and just cause eviction ordinances, Caroline Njoki, president of the Skylark Tenants Association, said in an interview.

The Marin DSA approached the San Anselmo City Council about renter protections earlier this year, and the organization anticipates presenting the issue to the council again in January, Ries said.

In Fairfax, more than 1,200 households rent their homes, constituting approximately 37% of total town households. Approximately 24% of Fairfax rental households are low income, 12% very low income and 36% are deemed extremely low income.

On Nov. 2, the rent stabilization ordinance received unanimous approval by the five-member Fairfax council. The just cause eviction ordinance passed 4-0, with one council member abstaining from the vote, saying that the ordinance lacked “reasonable kinds of compromises.” Both go into effect on Dec. 3.

The town’s newly adopted rent stabilization policy limits annual rent increases to an amount equal to 60% of the local CPI or 5%, whichever is lower. The new cap is far lower than the maximum 10% annual rent increase allowed on units covered by current state law.

However, an earlier California law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, exempts single-family homes, condos and units built after 1995 from state and local rent control ordinances. Local just cause eviction ordinances have no such restrictions.

Fairfax’s just cause eviction ordinance applies to a broader range of rental dwellings. This aspect of the law, as well as specified amounts landlords are required to pay for temporary tenant relocations and various punitive damages for landlords, gave pause to property owners and Councilmember Barbara Coler, who abstained from the vote.

“Some of the just cause strengthening is really, to me, fairly burdensome,” said Coler. “The temporary relocation payments, if you have to do a renovation and do a move out…it can be between $8- and $9,000 a month.”

Under the Fairax just cause ordinance, landlords who abuse the Ellis Act, a state law allowing landlords to withdraw a unit from the rental market to “go out of business,” are subject to paying a tenant triple damages if they re-rent the unit within two years. If the landlord wants to re-rent the unit within five years, it must first be offered to the former tenant. Any landlord failing to comply must financially compensate the former tenant for up to six months’ rent.

Lucie Hollingsworth, an attorney for Legal Aid of Marin, believes these measures are necessary. 

“Capping rent increases is only a part of the solution,” Hollingsworth said in a Sept. 27 letter to the town council. “Policies are needed to disincentivize outside investors from displacing Fairfax tenants merely to take advantage of Fairfax’s lack of local tenant protections.”

Indeed, Marin County towns and cities seem to be prime targets for large real estate investors. In a September article about Marin apartment complexes being sold to large investors, The Real Deal noted, “The county [Marin] also does not have the same strict rent control measures that can make owning multifamily properties an onerous proposition in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose.” 

The Fairfax just cause eviction ordinance has financial ramifications for corporate real estate investors and small, local landlords, including, for example, a senior who rents out a room in their home to make ends meet. At public meetings, critics of the ordinance said that these disincentives, aimed at preventing property owners from evicting tenants arbitrarily just to raise rents for future tenants, could cause problems for the landlord who rents out a portion of their home to a tenant. Disliking a tenant is not considered a just cause for eviction. 

Others warned of legal pushback.

“I believe these controls are so far reaching, you’ll most certainly find it challenged in the court,” Michael Burke, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Greenbrae, said at the Fairfax Town Council meeting.

Nikki Silverstein
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