Ten years of Just Cause Oakland
on September 23, 2009
“I am one of four thousand people in Oakland who will be foreclosed on,” announced East Oakland homeowner Karen Mims. The middle-aged, bespectacled African-American woman spoke with passion, and her voice reverberated in the auditorium-sized room.
“I fought for over a year to do everything I could to keep my house from being foreclosed,” she continued.
Mims spoke to hundreds of housing activists and Oakland residents who convened last Thursday in downtown’s opulent, historic Sweet’s Ballroom for a tenth-anniversary gala commemorating Just Cause Oakland, the Oakland-based nonprofit that campaigns on behalf of tenants and working class homeowners. In the beginning, Just Cause Oakland took on housing issues affected by the late 1990’s dot com boom, when evictions and rising rents were major problems faced by residents of East and West Oakland, the neighborhoods from which Just Cause draws most of its members. These days, the economic challenges confronting the organization are the economic bust and the national wave of foreclosures.
But organizers say their members still face many of the same issues now as they did then: the prospect of losing their homes and being unable to afford to live in Oakland.
Mims paused before her next sentence. “And because there is no justice without struggle, I will do everything I can to keep your house from being foreclosed on, too,” she said.
In 2007, Mims said, she refinanced her home, but later found that her mortgage had been turned over to another loan servicing company, which foreclosed on her home this year. Mims, already a Just Cause member and volunteer, sought help from the organization. This August, Just Cause Oakland held rallies that brought a few dozen members and supporters to outside Mims’ house to publicize the case. For now, Mims is still in her home, “taking it day by day,” she said, and applying for a longer stay.
As Mims spoke, fleets of young volunteers balanced stacks of cookies on platters while weaving through a maze of banquet tables, strollers, and endless currents of pedestrian traffic. Off to the side, more volunteers provided childcare in a toy-fortified room where streaks of a sunset-lit sky tinted the walls pink.
Two long folding tables nearby displayed an eclectic assortment of donated goods for a fundraising auction. Small glass ornaments sat next to hand-drawn coupons that promise the winning bidder a “2-hour cooking lesson” and “roundtrip flight to anywhere.”
Underneath the red and white glow of stage lights, another Oakland resident and Just Cause member, Kimberly Issac-Ray, had taken the stage. Issac-Ray said her water was shut off when her landlord defaulted on the mortgage and utility payments. She sought help from Just Cause, which took up her case with the East Bay Municipal Utility District. “We sat at their office until they turned the water back on,” Issac-Ray told the audience, which broke into applause.
EBMUD customer and community services manager, Rebecca Lamoreaux, credits Just Cause Oakland for increasing the utility company’s awareness of the “enormity of the foreclosure situation” and the “number of tenants affected when service was terminated.” However, she says that long before Just Cause Oakland started attending EBMUD’s board meetings, the company has had numerous special programs in place for customers having a hard time paying the bills.
“Our policies haven’t really changed,” Lamoreaux said. She says the company only turns off the water if they don’t hear back from a customer after sending many mailed notifications to the owner and tenant, over a period of six months.
Lamoreaux says that she still receives calls from Just Cause Oakland, notifying EBMUD about special cases. “They make us aware of individual situations, bring us together with the tenants so that we can work with them to keep the water on,” she said.
Last year, Just Cause Oakland won a moratorium from EBMUD on water shut-offs for tenants who are renting from owners who have defaulted on their properties. Although the moratorium officially ended last October, Nelson said he hasn’t heard of any shut-offs since.
Today’s depressed economy of high foreclosure rates and sinking housing prices may seem a far cry from the skyrocketing rents and dot com-era gentrification that the organization initially formed to address a decade earlier.
Ten years ago, the group that would become Just Cause Oakland began meeting at a public library in Oakland. Economically, it was a very different time for Oakland. Jobs were abundant, high-tech start-ups mushroomed, and rental housing in San Francisco grew unbelievably scarce. “Silicon Valley jobs were bringing in more mobile, higher-income people to San Francisco and nearby cities,” recalls Just Cause co-founder Phil Hutchings. “At the time, mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan was trying bring in 10,000 people to downtown Oakland.”
Many dot-com workers, accustomed to San Francisco rental prices, moved to the East Bay in search of cheaper deals. Many of them were willing to pay higher rents than some long-time Oakland residents. At the time, Oakland’s laws allowed landlords to increase rent — but only for vacated units. The number of 30-day “no cause” evictions in Oakland tripled between the years 1998 and 2002, and Oakland apartment rental prices increased nearly 100 percent. That’s according to a 2002 study by East Bay Housing Organizations, a nonprofit network of 150 organizations that support affordable housing
The same study found that people of color, seniors, disabled residents, and families with small children were most likely to be displaced by “no cause” evictions. In the late 1990s, Oakland was the seventh most expensive US city to rent in, with a poverty rate of 19 percent.
At last week’s gala, while standing onstage with co-founder Holly Finke, Hutchings recalled how increasing eviction rates had inspired the group to action. “Remember, back in 1999, there was a housing boom?” he asked the audience. “There were rich white folks, no jobs, no schools, empty buildings… Tenants were really scared,” he said. “Landlords had city council in their pocket. More and more black people were evicted and leaving Oakland. We knew we had to do something out of the ordinary.”
In 1999, forty or fifty people — a combination of tenants worried about eviction and longtime housing and anti-gentrification activists — began meeting at the library to discuss a ballot measure that would protect renters from no-cause evictions.
At the time, said Oakland Tenants’ Union organizer Eddie Ytuarte, who attended these preliminary meetings, sixty percent of the city’s population rented, and that engendered some sympathy for their proposal. “Conditions were just right to have a just cause law passed,” Ytuarte said. “There would be a couple hundred people out on the streets, talking about the need for this law.”
But passing the legislation wasn’t easy. In 2000, the group failed to gather enough signatures to put their measure on the Oakland ballot. In 2002, the Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance did make it onto the ballot as Measure EE, but it faced strong opposition from landlords who lobbied extensively against the measure, saying that it would prevent them from being able to evict problem tenants.
The ordinance passed that year, by a narrow margin of 50.1 to 49.1 percent, but it still faced legal challenges. In 2003, the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County sued the city of Oakland to prohibit enforcement of Measure EE. Although the suit ultimately didn’t block enforcement of the measure, the group’s executive director, Stephen Edrington, said it clarified some of the ordinance’s language.
Edrington said the ordinance has done great harm to landlords in Oakland, and that the majority of evictions are for nonpayment of rent, not because landlords are trying to hike prices. “All the Just Cause law does is make it more complicated and expensive for landlords to get rid of problem tenants,” he said. “I think it’s made the city more dangerous.”
He said restricting the use of no-cause evictions has resulted in greater consolidation in the market. “A lot of people don’t want to be landlords any more,” he said. “Small-scale mom and pops tend to leave.”
Just Cause’s supporters say the ordinance has greatly benefitted Oakland’s renters. “Oakland would be much worse off without Just Cause or rent control laws,” said Oakland Tenant’s Union’s Ytuarte. Ytuarte said that when he first started answering phones for the Tenants’ Union hotline back in 2000, he heard from many people who said they had been given thirty-day evictions with no cause. Almost immediately after Measure EE passed, he said, “The amount of calls definitely dropped.”
To this day, he said, “it has definitely has an effect in terms of reducing the amount of no-cause evictions.”
Although the housing market and economic conditions have “greatly changed” in Oakland since the dot-com boom, Just Cause Oakland’s spokesperson Matt Nelson said Measure EE continues to provide “some of the strongest protections for tenants nationwide.” The ordinance protects tenants from eviction that is based on changed ownership, so people renting homes that get foreclosed are protected, Nelson said.
Nowadays, the organization also does much of its work with low-income homeowners and is increasingly interested in pressuring banks to reinvest in communities hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, said Nelson. “We have to realize how banks have played a role in causing the housing and financial crisis,” he said.
In May, Just Cause Oakland supported the city council’s vote to end the city’s depository agreement with Bank of America, citing among other things the company’s high level of subprime loans and foreclosures in Oakland. Instead, Wells Fargo will provide depository services for the city for the next three years, a switch that still concerns Just Cause’s members. “We collected petitions and are still working to make sure that Wells Fargo makes a commitment in writing to our standards and are fighting to get that to be part of the contract that they have with the city,” Nelson said.
Xiaojing Wang, a policy analyst in Oakland councilmember Nancy Nadel’s office, said Wells Fargo had been asked to abide by Oakland’s just-cause eviction laws and to work with homeowners facing mortgage trouble. “We asked them to establish a local direct number that people can call to renegotiate their loans,” she said. “It’s an ongoing effort. But we’re trying to make it clear to them that these are priorities.”
At the gala last Thursday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson encouraged Just Cause members and allies to continue fighting foreclosures and push for banks to restructure loans to homeowners with ballooning interest rates. His organization, the RainbowPUSH Coalition, has announced its own campaign to call on banks to reduce the number of foreclosures.
The room exploded in applause as Jackson took the stage beside some of Just Cause’s most active members. “Invest in small business!” Jackson called out, dressed simply in a button-down black shirt and dark slacks, and gesturing with his arms as if he was giving a sermon. “Teach the children. Restructure loans. Housing is a human right!” He belted the words and the crowd shouted back in classic call-and-response fashion.
The appearance of Jackson — a longtime civil rights heavyweight — sent electricty through the room that continued throughout the night of celebratory dancing and music. There was much to celebrate, said Nelson, who looked pleased and a little flustered as passers-by waved, nodded, or shouted their greetings to him as they squeezed by.
He paused for a moment in the narrow hallway as elderly couples, volunteers brandishing clipboards with sign-up sheets, and activists dressed to the nines streamed past. Despite the economic changes Oakland has confronted over the last decade, the group has always been committed to helping people stay in their homes, Nelson said. “Are these properties seen as homes where people live?” he asks. “Or are they just assets on a spreadsheet? That’s the question.”
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