.Fairfax under fire for passing renter protection ordinances

Marin’s chronic housing shortage combined with rising inflation has pushed the rental market to a breaking point. Nowhere is that more evident than in the showdown taking place in Fairfax between renters, landlords and the town council.

The conflict began in November, when the progressive Fairfax Town Council passed two ordinances to protect renters, who account for 37% of the town’s households. Since then, verbal battles have played out during prolonged public comment periods at council meetings. It’s gotten downright disagreeable at times.

Although the council discussed, debated and negotiated the renter protections for eight months at public meetings prior to approving the ordinances, landlords are now demanding that both be repealed. One caps annual rent increases and the other provides strong measures to prevent arbitrary evictions, commonly known as a “just cause” eviction ordinance. 

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Landlords have leveled a variety of claims against the council members for voting in the ordinances. Elected officials failed to notify property owners that they were considering renter protections, they overreached their authority as a council and they have caused economic and unintended consequences, according to statements made by landlords at council meetings.

“There’s nothing in those ordinances that I would accept,” Philip Salaverry, owner of a Fairfax duplex, told the Pacific Sun. “The two ordinances combined are 36 pages long, and all of it is terrible for the housing provider.”

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

Salaverry, a retiree who lives on one side of his duplex, said he had leased the other half to long-term tenants for the past 15 years, never raising the rent more than 2% annually. But the financial risks are too great due to the ordinances, he said, which forced him to remove the unit from the residential market. It will soon be converted into a vacation rental that he will list on Airbnb.

In February, Salaverry co-founded Marin Residents, a political action committee (PAC), to fight the ordinances and educate property owners about rent control and housing issues. The group, which he said is grassroots, was responsible for gathering the 25 signatures necessary to place the issue of repealing the two ordinances on the town council agenda for April 5.

A robust crowd attended the council meeting, with dozens of people commenting during the almost three and a half hours of discussion about the renter protections. In the end, council members declined to bring the requested repeal to a vote. Instead, they voted unanimously to form a subcommittee with the mayor and vice mayor to review the ordinances.

Fairfax’s just cause eviction ordinance appears to be more controversial. Aimed at preventing landlords from evicting renters arbitrarily to benefit from increased rents for future tenants, the ordinance requires property owners to pay punitive damages for violations. It also applies to a broader range of rental dwellings than state law.

The town has scheduled a just cause eviction ordinance workshop, led by an independent facilitator, for May 6. The goal is to involve key stakeholders in a productive conversation about revising the ordinance to make it acceptable to both renters and landlords.

Renters support the workshop, according to Curt Ries, co-chair of the Marin Democratic Socialists of America, the group behind the push for renter protections. However, Ries doesn’t believe that the opposition is willing to come to the table in good faith.

“Most of them are not serious about revising the current ordinances,” Ries said. “The ordinances are very good, very strong. There are minor, but substantive revisions that can be made to address the more reasonable concerns stated by landlords.”

The landlords are crying foul. Michael Sexton, a Fairfax landlord and the other founder of Marin Residents, remains dissatisfied with the council’s actions, or lack thereof. He finds the workshop especially frustrating because it won’t address the rent control ordinance.

“It’s only dealing with half of the ordinances,” said Sexton. “The workshop would have been great eight months ago, but it’s way too little, way too late.”

The town received far more correspondence about the just cause eviction ordinance than rent stabilization, and the concerns were more substantive, Fairfax Mayor Chance Cutrano told the Pacific Sun. The workshop is the most expedient way to reconsider the elements of the just cause ordinance and determine what needs to be mitigated, he explained.

“At this time, the council is only holding a workshop on the just cause eviction ordinance,” Cutrano said.

However, opponents to the ordinances have a Plan B. Keep Fairfax Fair, a PAC established by Marin realtor Michael Burke, is circulating a petition to repeal the rent control and just cause eviction ordinances through a ballot measure.

A total of 588 signatures from registered Fairfax voters must be gathered to place the issue on the ballot, likely in 2024. About 300 signatures were gathered in the first week, Burke told the Pacific Sun.

Burke, whose website states he “specializes in apartment building investments” said his organization wants to rescind the ordinances because property owners had no input.

While renters have speculated that big money is behind Keep Fairfax Fair, Burke denied it. Current donors are mostly medium-sized apartment complexes in Fairfax, he said. To date, no large organizations, such as the Marin Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association, have made monetary donations, according to Burke. 

Sexton and Salaverry of Marin Residents also said they haven’t received donations from these associations. Still, the group has raised enough money for an ongoing cable television advertising campaign opposing rent control.

Marin Residents and Keep Fairfax Fair don’t rule out that large groups with deep pockets may become involved, especially if the groups are successful in getting their issue on the ballot. In accordance with state campaign finance laws, the PACs will need to disclose their donors in the future.

If the groups gather the requisite number of petition signatures, voters will decide whether to rescind the ordinances. Cutrano is concerned about the possibility of a ballot measure.

“We can continually amend ordinances,” Cutrano said. “That’s the great part about working with an ordinance. You can tweak them as they unfold, and you see how they work in the real world.”

Conversely, ballot measures cannot be revised. The only method to make changes would be another ballot measure in a future election.

Cutrano maintains that the rent control and just cause eviction ordinances are necessary, allowing people with lower incomes, such as artists, musicians, seniors and young families, to remain in Fairfax. The workshop is the most expedient way to reconsider the elements of the just cause ordinance and determine what needs to be mitigated, he explained.

“Fairfax is charming, and we want to protect it,” Cutrano said. “Given the crises that we’re facing—the legacy of fighting against building housing, the lack of funds to create affordable housing, the increasing costs of construction and the rent burdens—the council wants to support our community members.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

10 COMMENTS

  1. Nice how the landlords say they had no input into these ordinances after months of open meetings on them! And what? Landlords are now “housing providers”? Give me a break.

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    • Meg,

      Why should only Fairfax landlords subsidize lower income families, artists, musicians, seniors and young families? Why not YOU? You and everyone else that lives in Fairfax should contribute. Reach in your own pocket

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  2. Unfortunately, so-called “progressives” love rentals — and hate landlords. This kind of broad-brush “just cause” provision just runs small landlords out of business, leaving only the large corporate rent-extractors. Small landlords cannot afford the legal advice to keep up with the myriad of state, county, and local rental laws, violation of which put them at risk of losing what is often a life-time investment. This is especially true of retirees who depend upon the rents for their survival in old age, in the face of the staggering escalating costs of EVERYTHING.

    Just one more way the plutocracy – aided by misguided “progressives” – divides us and destroys the middle class.

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  3. We young people can’t afford much. My PGE bill was $500+ this month. Rent takes 70% of my paycheck. We’re not spending. Economists say my age group won’t be spending in the next ten years; This is bad for the economy and for everyone, for local businesses, for starting new families. There are no real arguments against the Fairfax ordinance passed by the council. It’s a modest ordinance. Landlords can still charge whatever they want when a new tenant moves in. All the arguments against it amount to vague threats that landlords will stop maintaining their properties or they will get the max rent increase they can out of spite. The movement against rent control is being led by a few angry landlords and realtors with deep pockets who frame their own efforts as ‘rent control’ to try and confuse the People. I’m sure most of the signatures they got were achieved be lying to the public. We’ll defeat the ballot measure. The Council was voted in by the People and they unanimously voted in favor of the current rent control, so the will of the People is strongly in favor of keeping the current ordinance. I wasn’t registered to vote in Fairfax but I just updated my registration because of this new threat. Putting it on the ballot is the only tool for landlords because these kinds of rent control have survived the courts before, it’s perfectly legal what the Council did. We should question whether these landlords and realtors even live in Fairfax themselves, or even in Marin or even in this state for that matter. Who really knows where they are from or how much money they have to pour into keeping the People down and out. All the landlord’s efforts against this reek of pure greed, which is evident from their poor arguments and failure to articulate what they actually have against the ordinance. They will say things like “rent control hurts us all”. How? They can never get past headline level talking points. In this respect they are very similar to maga trump republicans.

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    • Under these ordinances landlords can not keep up with inflation so you want landlords to subsidize your lifestyle. Live somewhere you can afford

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      • What lifestyle? Michael (along with many of us) notes “My PGE bill was $500+ this month. Rent takes 70% of my paycheck.”

        Fairfax should not be the only town in Marin – all towns should follow Fairfax’s lead.

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    • Rent control and just cause evictions will increase housing costs in the long run and make contingency attorneys wealthy as they line up to pursue frivolous lawsuits. We’ve seen this movie before.

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  4. One of the big issues is lack of supply of housing.

    Homeowners would normally want to consider building an ADU on their
    properties. However, who would sign up for this when eviction controls
    are so strong in a tenant’s favor ?

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  5. This is terrible. I ‘ve had this building for 23 years working on it all the time. I just found out from my tenant that I was int violation of a rent Ordinance that was just recently passed. I knew nothing about this until Yesterday July30th, 2023.
    My tenant sent me a notice last week to my PO Box. I will go down and pick up the Certified mail that he sent me today Monday.

    I provided a 30- day Rent increase Last month effective Augustb 1, 2023. Of 5% .
    Now I must lower it. I had a new roof Installed on the building in Aug of lat year Cost & 77,000 and an exterior Paint job on the building at $ 35,000.

    The roof is a 20 year roof of PVC.. A 20 yr roof is supposed to last 20 yeas this would mean $ 3,850a year to pay this roof off.I doubt I will live 20 yrs more..
    Paint job at $ 35,000 with a 7 yr life will add another $ 5,000.00 a year. total of
    $8,850 just for those two items. Ive worked on this building 23 years making repairs since day one. I am not a alum lord but this rent control is getting out of hand. There is no compensation for borrowing the money to pay interest for these loan repairs.

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  6. This is terrible. I ‘ve had this building for 23 years working on it all the time. I just found out from my tenant that I was int violation of a rent Ordinance that was just recently passed. I knew nothing about this until Yesterday July30th, 2023.
    My tenant sent me a notice last week to my PO Box. I will go down and pick up the Certified mail that he sent me today Monday.

    I provided a 30- day Rent increase Last month effective Augustb 1, 2023. Of 5% .
    Now I must lower it. I had a new roof Installed on the building in Aug of lat year Cost & 77,000 and an exterior Paint job on the building at $ 35,000.

    The roof is a 20 year roof of PVC.. A 20 yr roof is supposed to last 20 yeas this would mean $ 3,850a year to pay this roof off.I doubt I will live 20 yrs more..
    Paint job at $ 35,000 with a 7 yr life will add another $ 5,000.00 a year. total of
    $8,850 just for those two items. Ive worked on this building 23 years making repairs since day one. I am not a alum lord but this rent control is getting out of hand. There is no compensation for borrowing the money to pay interest for these loan repairs.
    Who was supposed to notify the Owner of this Ordinance? It seems the public can Comment and make changes , but the landlord is not informed and left in the dark. That’s blatantly WRONG. There are always two sides of the story.

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