An effort by a majority of Santa Ana City Council members to protect the city’s rent control ordinance might lead to a tricky test of the city charter – and a bitter fight over whether future councils would need more votes to weaken a citywide cap on rent increases. 

A blooming discussion of the idea at Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting hinted at just how contentious that fight may get. 

But there was a narrow majority support for the idea coming back for council discussion, as early as October. 

The idea was put forward by one of the rent control ordinance’s most vocal proponents, Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who proposed a law that night requiring a council supermajority – five out of seven council member votes – to amend certain provisions of the rent control ordinance, which also limits landlords’ ability to evict tenants. 

Currently, four out of seven votes – known as a simple majority – can alter the law.

Phan also put forward the idea of a supermajority vote to repeal the ordinance entirely, though she and city staff on Tuesday acknowledged that might prove to be a murkier prospect.

The city charter only requires a simple majority vote to pass or repeal ordinances. And changing the city charter itself would have to go before voters in a ballot measure.

She and staff wondered aloud whether a ballot measure would be a better approach to requiring a council supermajority for a repeal of the ordinance, though Phan would have to introduce that discussion separately at a future meeting.

“If we can still adopt an ordinance to require a supermajority for amendments, then I would like to direct city staff to look into that,” Phan said.

Council members who opposed the rent control ordinance in 2021 – Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza – in turn voiced opposition to protecting it from amendments by a future council majority with a different stance on the issue.

They focused their criticism on Phan. 

“Plain and simple, this is not legal. This isn’t about anything other than the city charter, which says you can adopt … by simple majority,” said Bacerra. “Four out of the seven — not five, not six, not seven, just four out of seven.”

He then referenced Phan’s occupation as a city attorney, providing legal advice and counsel to cities and other public agencies throughout Southern California. 

“It really shocks and disappoints me that of the members up here, the ones that should know city law best are the ones bringing this forward,” Bacerra said. “This is an absolute waste of time.”

Penaloza joined in, putting her city attorney title in physical air quotes at the dais.

“So you would think that they would know what is applicable and what isn’t,” Penaloza said.

Phan responded: “First, city attorney is not in quotes — I am a city attorney for a general law city.”

“Staff has not said that we cannot require a supermajority to amend the (laws).”

Other council members voiced their support for the idea. 

“We are losing 1,500 children a year at the Santa Ana Unified School District,” said Councilmember Ben Vazquez, a schoolteacher. “What must these families have gone through in order to hold on and stay in the city they call home? How many garages, rental raises and sleepless nights in cars did they go through?”

Vazquez called it “common” throughout Santa Ana to see multiple families in one apartment, spreading out sleeping space across living and dining rooms. 

“I’m proud of the folks who have been able to own their homes. But you know that your families and grandchildren can’t afford to stay here. They will leave the state,” Vazquez said. “I hope we can all stay together.”

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