After contentious meeting, Tenant Protection Ordinance will advance
on October 15, 2014
Emotions ran high as tenants, landlords and council members discussed whether or not to pass the Tenant Protection Ordinance during a Special Community and Economic Development Committee meeting in Oakland’s City Council chambers on Tuesday afternoon.
About 18 members of Causa Justa (Just Cause), a tenants’ rights organization, attended the meeting to urge the committee to pass the ordinance, which would prohibit 16 kinds of harassment behaviors by landlords. These behaviors include verbal or physical threats and intimidation to get tenants to vacate a rental unit, failure to perform repairs and maintenance, and the interruption or termination of housing services required by health and safety laws.
“We are a tenant majority city, and there needs to be more protection for tenants on the books,” said Robbie Clark, housing rights campaign lead organizer at Causa Justa. “There are more and more people being pushed out because there are no adequate protections in place.”
Landlords spoke against the ordinance at the meeting, as well, including Carmen Madden, who said that landlords who abide by the laws, such as herself, would be targeted with frivolous lawsuits and that it would become harder to evict problem tenants. “We do not need another ordinance,” said Madden. “We need more education. Both tenants and landlords need to know the laws.”
District 4 councilmember Libby Shaaf, who is also a mayoral candidate, said she supported the ordinance, specifically a provision that would help protect immigrants. Under the ordinance, threats by landlords to report a tenant to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would send a landlord to court. It would also punish landlords for failure to provide clean and safe living conditions, a situation that is sometimes faced by undocumented tenants, who may fear reporting bad conditions. “I have seen examples where unscrupulous—that rare unscrupulous landlord—has purposely rented to an individual that they know will not complain to the government,” said Shaaf.
“This morning in our finance committee, we saw a huge flood of immigrant children who are coming to our city,” Shaaf said. “That is a very tangible reminder that this type of protection is important.”
But councilmember Patricia Kernighan of District 2 said she is concerned that low-income, non-English speaking populations may not even be aware of the ordinance if it passes. Kernighan suggested alternate solutions to avoid long legal cases. She said the city should change its current practice of inspecting rental units only when a complaint is filed by a tenant. “I strongly advocate that we change our system from complaint based to regular annual or two year inspections of units,” Kernighan said.
Kernighan also proposed that the city keep better track of the 100 to 200 phone calls the Housing and Community office receives every month from tenants with complaints.
Three of the four councilmembers on the committee were present during the vote. Lynette Gibson McElhaney of District 3 and Schaaf supported the proposed ordinance. Kernighan abstained. The 2-1 vote allowed the ordinance to go to the City Council for further consideration after councilmember Dan Kalb of District 1, who drafted the ordinance, agreed to make two major amendments. (Kalb, who is not on the committee, was there to present the ordinance to them.)
The first amendment would remove administrative remedies—actions a tenant can take rather than going to court—from the ordinance but will keep legal action as an option for tenants who want to file a complaint against their landlords in court. Kalb said the city administrative staff felt uncomfortable with keeping the administrative remedies because it would make a lot more work for the city staff, and the details had not been worked out yet.
The second amendment will exempt any new construction that has not been built from the ordinance for 20 years after construction finishes. Only landlords of existing rent controlled and non-rent controlled units will need to abide by the ordinance if it is passed. Kalb and Kernighan reached this compromise after disagreeing on which landlords should be exempt. Kernighan said the ordinance should only apply to rent-controlled buildings, while Kalb said tenants in non-rent controlled buildings, or those built after 1983, need protection, too.
Vice Mayor Larry Reid of District 7, who is part of the committee, voiced his opposition after arriving late and demanding a revote. Some members of the audience were upset by his request and insisted that the committee move on. The committee denied Reid’s request since the vote was closed minutes before his arrival.
The revised Tenant Protection Ordinance will be reviewed next Tuesday, October 21 during the City Council meeting at City Hall.
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