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Sonoma County supervisors mull new safeguards for tenants, benefits for workers

Sonoma County supervisors will mull expansive new protections for workers and renters that would extend paid sick leave requirements to cover all employers outside of city limits and prohibit evictions countywide during the pandemic for nearly any reason.

The measures, long sought by tenant and worker advocates, are fraught with political and legal land mines. They were at the center of a tense discussion Tuesday, as the Board of Supervisors weighed a strengthened eviction moratorium while acting to extend a local paid sick leave ordinance meant to allow workers to stay home if ill or to care for loved ones. Supervisors promised to expand those protections to all employees within the unincorporated portions of the county.

In their most detailed deliberation since August on the plight of renters, landlords, workers and businesses, supervisors signaled support for the sweeping policy moves, urging staff to draft new rules by Feb. 9 while remaining flexible to potential changes based on looming state and federal legislation.

“It is time for us to be held accountable,” Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said. “We need to move forward with a sense of urgency.”

The county’s initial paid sick leave ordinance, which governed employers outside of city limits and expired Dec. 31, extended two weeks of paid sick leave to workers during the pandemic and applied to companies with 500 or more workers nationwide — companies that had been exempted by a federal coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March 2020.

But with more federal relief on hold until at least early March of this year, supervisors will seek to expand the county’s ordinance in the coming weeks to include employers of all sizes in the unincorporated portions of the county.

Supervisors also signaled the potential for an aggressive expansion of renter protections, which are currently tied to state rules that county officials expect will be renewed by the Legislature this week. Those rules will likely prohibit the charging of late fees, but activists say they offer a host of loopholes for landlords seeking to evict tenants unable to make rent.

Any action the board takes would be backed by $14.7 million that can be used by local landlords for back rent — funding made available through the most recent federal coronavirus relief package.

Supervisor Chris Coursey, who took office only this month, sought an overhaul to the county’s ordinance that would prohibit evictions even in cases where property owners sought to sell or move into their own properties — stronger than even state protections and matching Alameda and San Francisco counties for the most aggressive local tenant protections in the state.

Coursey’s proposal gained an ally in Supervisor Susan Gorin, but the three other supervisors voiced tepid interest to outright opposition, setting up a potential battle in the coming weeks over the scope of renter protections. Officials also plan to seek buy-in from the county’s nine cities to ensure the ordinance applies countywide. The previous local eviction moratorium followed the same path, with only Sonoma opting out based on protections the city had already put in place.

As Sonoma County nears the one-year mark of the pandemic’s local onset, some residents and activists say the safeguards are long overdue, and they called on supervisors to quickly enact change.

“No more stalling, no more waiting on the state, no more capitulating to the moneyed interests,” said Noa Hughes, with the North Bay Organizing Project and the Sonoma County Tenants Union. “How many times are you going to break our trust in you. Show us you care. You are an all-white, financially privileged board. Do the right thing.”

But property owners worried landlords were being made into scapegoats, and decried the potential for unfair policies that could hurt homeowners and small businesses struggling amid unprecedented economic turmoil.

Jennifer Coleman, who has been a renter and a landlord for 19 years in Sonoma County, said she has been out of work since March, accumulating $50,000 in debt throughout the pandemic.

“(You’re) using landlords as a scapegoat instead of a human being…how dare you paint landlords this way,” Coleman said.

Coursey, who also is a landlord, called such comments “off base.”

“We’re trying to solve a serious problem we have in this community,” he said.

Supervisors all expressed support for expanded legal protection for renters in the midst of eviction proceedings, but the details of such a plan, including whether it would include a right to legal representation akin to the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, remain unclear amid questions about the costs of such a program.

“It goes back to our dilemma we have in the county. We have anecdotal evidence, but we don’t have anything hard and fast,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, adding that added protections against evictions could lessen the need for legal assistance.

Hopkins said there has long been need for tenant legal assistance in the county, even outside of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coursey said he supports such a program, but also urged increased eviction protections immediately.

Gorin agreed.

“We need to increase funding … until then, I want this board to state pretty emphatically that we’re going to take action (to protect renters) if the state doesn’t,” Gorin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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