No Renticide!!!!

root - Posted on 08 April 2002

Hundreds of Oakland tenants, advocates and community organizers gathered outside Oakland City Hall

by Fiona Gow/PoorNewsNetwork

Crossing the Bay, from San Francisco to Oakland is always reassuring to me. Oakland has been described as where the real people live, meaning I suppose that it was not hit by the dotcom boom and the turf wars that hit San Francisco. But this is changing. Even though Oakland did not boom with the rest of the Bay Area, it is not immune from the housing crunch, and right now it appears that while Jerry Brown encourages economic development, many renters are finding themselves at the mercy of greedy landlords, many of whom have no qualms about evicting tenants if it means they can double or triple the rents. In Oakland, it is far easier than in other Bay Area cities to evict tenants, as there is no Just Cause protection. In a city where 65 percent of the residents are renters it is unbelievable that they have so few protections. According to community member Rebecca Kaplan, one of the protesters at the January 22 renters’ rights rally I attended, "Under the current law, it is legal for a landlord to tell a young woman that he will evict her if she doesn't sleep with him."

As renter John Barnett knows from his long and arduous battle with his landlord Madison REIT, it takes a great deal of confidence and resources to be able to fight these increases. He, along with 15 other tenants petitioned the Oakland Rent Arbitration Board after their rents were raised by 20-65 percent by a landlord who claimed exemption from Oakland rent control laws. The petitioning process took almost a year, during which time the tenants had to reserve enough money for back rent in case they lost their cases. Tenants pooled their money for an attorney, demonstrating their seriousness and knowledge of current law. Early on Madison REIT had suggested that the tenants negotiate. But, as Barnett said, "There was nothing to negotiate. Either you're exempt or you're not." Madison REIT apparently was not, and rescinded the rent increases.

Cases like Barnett's are becoming more common, though few tenants have the information and finances necessary to challenge their landlords. Renters' rights groups, now more than ever, are making a powerful push to educate renters and to organize them to fight for more protections. Hundreds of such renters' rights groups gathered outside Oakland City Hall on January 22 to stage a protest rally before the City Council Meeting at which a new rent ordinance was to be voted on.

The evening of January 22 was a bone-chilling one, but the mood of the ralliers was generous and excited. A dozen or so high school students from the students' and youths' rights group OLIN brandished signs saying, "Help Jerry Out of Oakland" and "No Renticide", while chanting passionately with the rest of the demonstrators. Also marching was a seven-year-old girl named Jasmine who was there with her mother to demand better living conditions for her family, in particular a sister who was suffering from severe lead poisoning. Many renters told their stories of unfair evictions—Ramona was served with a 30-day notice for renovations that were never done. "He {the landlord} got so tied up in his own lies that the judge dismissed the case," she explained.

John Ryman of the Campaign for Renters' Rights suggested that we all look back at history, to the Oakland General Strike of 1946 that shut down the entire city, "We have to stop this bloodsucking system from functioning." Another speaker, Mr. Basset, sees the new ordinance as perpetuating racism, "You want to keep us as renters, on the plantation. Black people own nothing in this city except for some homes."

After the rally everyone moved inside for the Oakland City Council meeting. The chambers were packed. Over 60 speakers took center stage to give their opinions on the proposed ordinance. The overwhelming majority, of both renters and landlords, asked the council not to pass this ordinance. Many boos and applause rang out in the chambers, as did shouts of "Bloodsucker" and "Bull". Phil Rapier, of Just Cause Oakland, was so passionate in his plea for getting Just Cause protections in place that he eventually was escorted from the floor by guards.

The new ordinance gets rid of the 3 percent cap on rent increases. Instead, rent increases would be calculated from on a formula based on the Consumer Price Index for San Jose and San Francisco, which is the average of the percentage increase in the CPI (all items) and the CPI minus shelter for the twelve months starting on March 1 in each calendar year and ending the following February. Renters are worried that without any cap, the annual allowable rent increases could potentially skyrocket. For the time being though they are better off, since the increase presently would only be about 1.9 percent. Council member Nancy Nadel who opposed the ordinance said, "I would have liked to see a floor and cap of perhaps 1 and five percents, with an overall cap of 12 annually that would include banked rents and any capital improvement pass-throughs."

Section 8 renters, of which there are approximately 20,000 in Oakland have been specifically excluded from rent control protections in this ordinance. This means that after one year of tenancy, Section 8 landlords can raise the rents as high as they want. According to Andrew Wolff of Just Cause Oakland, this is a move to attract landlords to rent to accept Section 8 renters.

Another point of contention is that renters would be forced to pay any rent increase, even while they were petitioning the increase with the Rent Arbitration Board. In the past, such petitions have taken over a year to get heard. If a renter cannot or will not pay the increased rent, they can be evicted. With such a law it is easy to imagine people being evicted simply because they don't have the funds to wait for their case to be heard.

Under the new ordinance, landlords are not penalized for unjust rent increases, though they will be penalized for unjustly evicting someone. Unjust in this case means that the landlord is found to have evicted someone simply so the rent could be increased above the permissible amount. Under this ordinance, landlords are not allowed to evict a tenant and then raise the rent indiscriminately for the new tenant. The new tenant will instead "step into the shoes" of the previous tenant and can only incur the increases in their rent that the old tenant would have incurred. Under the new ordinance, such landlords will be forced to pay the tenant $1000 plus two months' rent. The city will supposedly keep track of a landlord's history of evictions and rent increases, though it is most likely that the onus will be on new tenants to find this out.

According to the new ordinance, landlords will not be required to inform renters about possible recourse for rent increases and evictions through the Rent Arbitration Board unless the renter is affected by an increase or eviction.

Though the criteria for determining which landlords are exempt seems clear, renters claim that there are far too many loopholes in the ordinance for landlords to use if they wish to jack up the rent. Capital improvements as well as banked increases are big ones. There is no place where tenants can go to find out which landlords are or are not exempt from rent control laws. Very few landlords qualify, and yet many renters are faced with situations like Barnett and his fellow tenants, where landlords claim exemption. (There are two ways that a landlord can be exempted from rent control. One way is to own a building that was built after 1983, a law meant to encourage development in Oakland, and the other way is for landlords to invest at least 50 percent of the cost of the building in improvements.)

Another point of contention is the fee used to fund the Rent Arbitration Board. It now costs $24 dollars a year, per rental unit and half of that is paid by the tenant. Organizer Linda Carson fears that the rate will climb, as it did in Berkeley, where the fee is now $150 dollars. However, the new ordinance states that this fee will remain the same through 2003, at which point it will sunset.

There are serious questions about the Rent Arbitration Board itself and how well it is able to fulfill its role. According to renters at the rally, their experience with the Renters Arbitration Board proved abysmal. The Board did not schedule a hearing within 30 days as they are supposed to, neither did they respond to phone calls and other inquiries. The new ordinance is supposed to address these complaints, yet it was not clear how. Their funding at the moment is 1.6 million, an amount which seems preposterously large for a body that is so irresponsible.

Even after all the public comment criticizing the ordinance, council voted to pass it anyway, without much discussion. Council member Nancy Nadel, who voted against the ordinance stated, "I think the ordinance proposed and later passed is a series of band-aids on an originally weak concept. What the city needs and what tenants need is Just Cause for eviction protections." This lack of discussion on such an important issue was reprehensible, considering the council spent an hour discussing a nightclub license before the rent ordinance item was heard.

Spirits among community members and tenants’ rights groups still seemed very strong after the vote though. There was no doubt in people's minds that they would gather the 30,000 signatures needed to get the Just Cause initiative on the November ballot. As Phil Rapier said, "It is clear that the challenge is on us and we have to organize the people in Oakland." Support for Just Cause and greater tenants’ rights can only grow as more and more people are affected by evictions and outrageous rent increases.


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