Nuisance Eviction Ordinance break-out meeting with sex worker advocates and concerned Oakland residents with Deputy City Attorney, Richard Illgen on November 5.

Nuisance Eviction Ordinance changes regarding sex workers upset advocacy groups

on December 3, 2014

Sex worker advocacy groups in the Bay Area have taken to social media and traditional media methods to express their outrage over Oakland’s recent updates to an existing “nuisance eviction ordinance” for housing. Advocates believe that the newest addition will allow landlords to unfairly evict those who are voluntarily working as sex workers in commercial and residential spaces.

Oakland’s city council unanimously voted on October 21 to amend an existing eviction ordinance—originally instated in 2004—to allow landlords and/or the city to evict tenants due to additional “nuisances.” The previous version of the ordinance allowed landlords and/or the city to evict tenants for nuisances like “violent activity, drug activity, and possession of illegal weapons,” according to an email newsletter from City Attorney Barbara Parker sent on November 14.

Parker introduced the nuisance ordinance revisions on September 16, before a city council panel, without any opposition from the general public. Some of the recommendations included adding gambling, possession of illegal ammunition, and “prostitution, pimping, pandering and solicitation activity” as causes for eviction, according the agenda report.

The most controversial revision allows landlords to evict sex workers from their residences. In Parker’s newsletter, she clarified why the policy is in place and how it works, stating that the ordinance only applies when the tenant’s actions create a danger or severe nuisance to surrounding tenants, and that there must be credible evidence of those actions before a landlord or the city can evict. “Any eviction must be based on evidence, for an example an arrest,” she wrote. “No one can be evicted in Oakland based on their status as a prostitute.”

The policy requires that the city notify a landlord of evidence of the tenant’s nuisance activity. If landlord fails to bring an eviction action, then the landlord will be cited by the city. But if a landlord fears for their safety because of the problem tenant, then the city can be assigned to carry out the eviction without the landlord.

Sex worker and tenant advocacy groups were surprised and frustrated once they learned the ordinance had passed. “I didn’t know about it at all or until City Lab reported on its passage a few weeks ago,” said Kristina Dolgin of Red Light Legal, a new Oakland-based sex worker advocacy group. Dolgin is currently a student at Golden Gate University School of Law and the founder of Red Light Legal. The group is in its incubation stages and will aim to provide legal services, legal representation, and policy advocacy to sex workers and related communities.

The city council meeting right after the ordinance passed on November 5 was attended by Dolgin and other sex worker advocacy groups who wanted to challenge the policy. But the ordinance was not on the official agenda for the meeting, so only one community member was able to speak—Isa Noyola, program manager of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, which advocates to change law and policy regarding discrimination based on gender identity or expression. She gave a short talk about discrimination against the transgender community, which can include abuse, neglect from family members and lack of employment. To audience applause and cheering, she ended with her speech with, “So any wonder, so many of us use street economies to survive?”

Council President Patrician Kernighan asked for discussion of the ordinance to continue in the open forum at the end of the meeting. After the meeting, members of several advocacy groups were taken to a side room with Deputy City Attorney Richard Illgen to address questions and concerns.

According to Dolgin, the ordinance threatens stable housing for people who are already discriminated against and who are on the fringes of society. She also believes that the policy will increase the gentrification of neighborhoods if landlords kick out existing residents, and will be used to persecute and displace poor people—especially in poorer regions of the city, like East Oakland.

She said that the language written into the ordinance is directed towards residential and commercial landlords, meaning that the evictees will primarily be tenants and workers in small business. But, she pointed out, sex work also happens on properties owned by large businesses. “All hotels facilitate sex work in some way or another—it could be the Marriott downtown,” she said. City officials, she added, “clearly don’t understand the contours of the sex industry.”

Simone Tureck, executive director of the Foster Youth Alliance, says that many current and former foster youth in Oakland are exploited as sex workers. She believes that many of them could be evicted through the ordinance, and is worried about what will happen to them next. “The population is my concern,” she said. “Where will they go?”

At the November 5 meeting, Illgen said that the City of Oakland needs this policy to protect other tenants. “The driving force is that the tenants deserve to live in a safe environment as other residents,” he said. Illgen emphasized that sex workers won’t be evicted simply because of their status as prostitutes, and that the ordinance does not require the eviction of all prostitutes. However, if an eviction occurs, Illgen said, Oakland has some of the strongest tenants’ laws in America. He said that, by law, tenants can legally challenge their eviction and are entitled to a civil trial before they are formally evicted.

East Bay Housing Rental Association (EBHRA), a non-profit educational organization for landlords, acknowledges the city’s strong tenancy laws. “While it [Oakland’s tenant law] protects certain people, it protects bad players as well,” says Jill Broadhurst, executive director of EBHRA. She credits the ordinance with clarifying for landlords which tenants are protected from eviction and which are not.  She added that landlords just want to follow the city law, and that the ordinance is “just sharpening and tightening” it.

Alex Katz, Oakland City Attorney Office’s Chief of Staff, points outs that the ordinance itself is not new, although the language regarding sex workers is. “It has been in the books for 10 years,” he said. He also noted that it corresponds with an update in state law. On September 15, California re-enacted a nuisance eviction law from 1997, allowing landlords to evict tenants for illegal use of unlawful weapons or ammunition that is deemed as a nuisance. The next day, Parker introduced the local ordinance revision to the Oakland City Council.

Katz said that that was not a coincidence, and that city governments usually update their own version of the state law to fit city needs. He then noted that Oakland has had a high prostitution rate. Year-to-date statistics provided by the Oakland Police Department show that 596 arrests have been made this year in regard to all sex trafficking crimes.

Katz said that while advocacy groups and community members may be worried about landlords evicting people who are not causing problems in their ordinary living situation, that won’t be the case. “The city will not use this everyday. It will be used very selectively, only when the city finds [a situation] very dangerous,” he said. Katz added that the city’s existing nuisance ordinance has been used very sparingly, with only 10 or 12 evictions since 2004.

The City Attorney Office’s has heard from sex worker advocates about their concerns, as well. Katz mentioned a story that he was told by a former sex worker about a client, which Katz felt demonstrated why nearby residents could be endangered if sex work is happening in residential areas. “A man showed up with a gun and assaulted her,” Katz said of the sex worker. “It’s horrible that it happened. However, there is somebody in Oakland bringing that kind of violence to apartment buildings.”

The ordinance went into immediate affect after it passed on October 21, but Dolgin’s group is exploring next steps in the hopes of eradicating the new amendments. “We want to see the removal of the expansion,” she said.

“I am collecting statements of critique and opposition, and then sending to Rebecca Kaplan’s office.” Dolgin hopes the councilmember-at-large will help the advocacy groups explore possible solutions.

Foster Youth Alliance would also like the ordinance’s wording to be changed. “I think the language should change to exclude sex workers from the ordinance,” said Tureck. “The whole thing doesn’t need to be overturned.”

So far, no one has brought a proposal for an update or revision to the council. But, Katz wrote in an email, “Anybody can propose a new law or an amendment to a law, to the City Council.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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