In March of this year, a Santa Ana homeowner attempted several times to secure the city’s help in evicting a tenant who was renting a bedroom from him but wouldn’t leave two months after he gave her notice. The man had sold the house and was afraid the sale would fall through if the recalcitrant renter didn’t leave.
The tenant? Santa Ana Councilmember Jessie Lopez, a progressive political activist who was elected in November 2020 from Ward 3.
“My name is Hector Orellana, resident and taxpayer on the 1702 E. Fruit St in the city of Sana Ana,” began the March 17, 2022 e-mail from Orellana to two members of the Santa Ana City Council.
“I would like to bring an issue to your attention in regard with one of your colleague Mrs. Jessie Lopez which happened to be living in my house renting a bedroom,” continued Orellana, who noted he was also renting a bedroom to Miriam Rodriguez, whom he identified as Lopez’s mother. He said his rental agreement with the mother, not Lopez.
“Mrs. Rodriguez was notified verbally in January 2022 that [I] was selling my house and that I need her to vacate the room that she was renting.” In his e-mail, Orellana said he waived Mrs. Rodriquez’ February rent on the condition she vacate the room by March 2 but “Mrs. Lopez that she refuse to leave.”
“I’m now forced to make an eviction for non-payments and with risk of losing the sale of my house due to this issue,” complained Orellana.
“I understand Ms. Lopez is a member of the City Council as well as a member of the Democratic Party and with this action shows the lack of respect to their constituents and Taxpayers and reflect very poorly the leadership to represent the Democratic Party,” Orellana concluded.
Orellana put his house on the market in August of 2021, and after several price reductions secured a contingent sale in January 2022 for $850,000. By March, he was clearly concerned he would lose the sale because Councilmember Lopez refused to leave and allegedly refused to pay her rent.
Prior to e-mailing the two councilmembers, Orellana went to City Hall seek the city’s help in evicting the 33-year old councilmember. According to city sources, he made his case to Rosa Flores, assistant to the city manager but was told it was a matter between tenant and landlord.
OC Independent contacted Ms. Flores and asked about the incident. She initially confirmed that Orellana had come to City Hall and she had spoken with him, and then asked if she could place the call on hold. After about a minute or so, she came back on the line and declined to discuss the matter further.
“This is a private matter and I am not comfortable commenting on it at this time,” she said.
OC Independent called Mr. Orellana on April 19 to ask about the issue. After confirming that Lopez had moved out at some point after his March contacts with the city, he declined to discuss the matter further. It’s unknown if Lopez paid Orellana the back rent she owed.
The sales of his home closed on April 14.
OC Independent e-mailed Councilmember Lopez with several questions related to this article. At time of publication, she had not responded.
On April 20, OC Independent submitted a California Public Record Act request seeking communications between Mr. Orellana and the city from January 2022 to mid-April. After working with staff to refine the scope, the PRA request was finalized on April 29.
The city responded on the evening of May 2, essentially denying the request:
“Your request seeks records from emails account that is not operated by the City of Santa Ana and the requested records do not appear to relate to the conduct of the public business. In order to be “public records,” the requested records must contain information related to the conduct of the public’s business and must be prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency.”
Lopez Championed Strict Rent Control and Just Cause Eviction Ordinance
Lopez ran for city council as a proponent of rent control, and last year she championed the rent control and “just cause” eviction ordinance that was passed by the city council. The ordinance is arguably the most draconian such ordinance in California.
The “just cause” eviction clause makes it extremely difficult for a housing provider to evict a tenant; a wily tenant can exploit the ordinance to live rent-free for a prolonged period.
Some types of properties are exempt from Santa Ana’s “just cause” eviction law; it appears Lopez’s situation at 1702 E. Fruit fell under the exemption for “Single-family owner-occupied residences including a residence in which the owner-occupant rents or leases no more than two units or bedrooms, including, but not limited to, an accessory dwelling unit or a junior accessory dwelling unit.”
Eviction Raises Residency Question
Since she no longer lives at 1702 E. Fruit Street, where does Councilmember Lopez live? The answer to the question is directly relevant to her qualification to serve.
According to the city charter, “In the event any councilmember other than the mayor shall cease to be a resident of the ward from which the councilmember (or, in the case of an appointee, the councilmember’s predecessor) was elected…the office shall immediately become vacant…”
OC Independent reached out to Councilmember Lopez and to the city to ask where Lopez currently lives and for confirmation that her current residence is located in Ward 3, and also looked up her current voter registration.
This afternoon, Clerk of the Council Daisy Gomez e-mailed a link to a signed affidavit from Lopez.
“Councilmember Lopez did update her residence on 5 /2/22 and filed her affidavit under penalty of perjury and proof of her new residence within the 60 day requirement pursuant to Resolution No. 2020-041,” wrote Gomez.
Lopez signed the affidavit the same day that the city declared OC Independent’s PRA request a dead letter.
OC Independent separately verified Lopez’s new address: on April 12, she registered to vote at a 4 bedroom, 1,540 square foot home in Ward 3. Four other adults are also registered to vote at the same address.
Unsolved Mystery: Lopez’ Means of Support
In California, all elected officials and candidates for state and local office are required to file annual Statements of Economic Interests – commonly referred to a Form 700. Form 700 filers are required to disclose their sources of income (unless they are a government employee).
The only income Lopez reported on her first Form 700 – filed in August 2020 while she was running for council – was between $1,000 and $5,000 in salary as an employee of Latino Health Access. Also in August of that year, Lopez loaned $5,000 to her council campaign – a campaign debt to herself that she is still carrying.
However, in all her campaign finance reports (the most recent filed in January of this year), Lopez lists her occupation as “Promotora” for Latino Health Access.
As a councilmember, Lopez is paid $1,000 a month, plus a $500 a month car allowance. Council members also receive medical benefits that they can convert into a lump sum equivalent. Lopez is also paid $1,500 a year as a member of the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors. They are not reportable because they’re payments from the government.
Councilmember Lopez has not responded to multiple requests for comment and answers to questions.