East Palo Alto considers giving tenants a head start at buying property, policy draws controversy

Critics say the bureaucracy involved would be devastating and would even delay transactions, driving away potential buyers.
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Housing has long been a hot-button issue across the Bay Area and beyond.

In East Palo Alto on Wednesday, councilmembers weighed in on the city's controversial Opportunity to Purchase Act (OPA).

City documents show the policy would require property owners to give renters affordable housing non-profits and the city a chance to purchase some multifamily properties before they hit the market.

The city said nearly a third of all of East Palo Alto's housing units are owned by absentee landlords. The intent of the proposed OPA would be to protect the community from outside investors.

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"It is only just to offer. Offer! Not at a lower price, but to offer that home to a tenant before that house goes on specifically to the open market," Councilman Carlos Romero said during Wednesday's study session.

While Councilman Romero and others view the ordinance as a tool to create more affordable housing, others argue it's a takeover.

In recent months, council heard an estimated 12-hours of public comment on the policy.

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On Sunday, opponents with the Business and Housing Network organized a rally outside City Hall.

Xin Ma is part of that group. Ma said he's a San Mateo resident and he identifies as a Tenants Rights Activist for people living in East Palo Alto.

"There will be fewer housing providers who will be willing to provide rental housing in East Palo Alto," he explained. "Because once you provide the housing, rent it out, there is a possibility- think of it like your property is condemned."

Councilman Romero pushed back on such claims, pointing out 61% of people who signed a petition in opposition were not East Palo Alto residents.

Instead, he said the ordinance would be one of more than a dozen laws already implemented that aim to create stability, reduce displacement, and protect its residents from outside investors.

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However, critics maintain the bureaucracy involved with OPA's would be devastating and would even delay transactions, driving away potential buyers.

There was no vote scheduled for Wednesday night's study session. The city will revisit the issue in the New Year.

ABC7 News reached out to all East Palo Alto councilmembers for comment.

In an email, Councilman Antonio Lopez said, "I am of the belief that this ordinance can bring some genuine good for our City. The housing market where my parents, working-class immigrants from Mexico, bought the home in which I grew up is not the one our renters face now, who comprise over two thirds of our City."

Lopez continued, "It is the ethos of East Palo Alto to protect and empower those most vulnerable, and in the wake of the multiple crises we face."

He referred to the global pandemic and the region's affordable housing shortage.

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"I can't think of a more urgent time to take the bold action necessary to address regional displacement," Lopez wrote. "That said, we can do a much better job casting a wider net with our outreach: not just to non profits and renters affected, but also to realtors, to landlords of all socio-economic backgrounds."

He said politics is not just about policy, but process.

"It is understandable that a proposed change of this potential magnitude will arouse anxiety, even fear, from those affected. It is prudent that we move forward on the proposed TOPA/OPA ordinance in a way that does not alienate home owners, especially local ones who are at pains to understand the full ramifications of this proposal," he added.

There was no vote scheduled for Wednesday night's study session. The city will revisit the issue in the new year.

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