Oakland and the limits of rent control: Confronting a crisis
on October 27, 2016
Clara Chow didn’t ask for a $3,000 Italian tile kitchen floor.
She didn’t want a concrete patio, granite countertops or a cool gray exterior paint job for the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and daughter, either, but she’s still paying for them thanks to Oakland’s murky rent control rules.
“It was forced on us,” said Chow, who has lived at the four-unit property on a quiet street in the ever-trendier Temescal neighborhood for 18 years. “We were never even shown a budget.”
The bill her landlord passed on for the upscale improvements, which she said added 35 percent to the family’s $1,220-a-month rent, is an example of how price increases threaten to push tenants out of their homes in Oakland.
Chow’s three-year case with the city’s rent board also illustrates one of several tenant issues bubbling up in an onslaught of proposed changes to Oakland rent laws unrivaled in recent memory. Other questions include whether landlords should have to get government pre-approval for rent hikes, as well as how tenants and the city should be notified of increases.
In the meantime, the number of renters being pushed out of Oakland is a question only starting to be answered.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping project—a self-described collective of housing activists, researchers, and artists “documenting the dispossession of Bay Area residents in the wake of the Tech Boom 2.0”—reports that 32,402 eviction cases were opened in Oakland from 2005 to 2015. The group says the city’s black population declined 4 percent from 2010 to 2014 alone.
If the numbers on how many residents have ultimately left the city are imprecise, the response has been clear. Backlash is fueling a battle playing out on three fronts: at the city council, in the campaign for a November ballot measure and at the state Assembly, where housing advocates are urging state lawmakers to reconsider longstanding limitations on rent control.
“Let me tell you, Oakland, California, is the epicenter of the affordable housing crisis,” Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a recent forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine. “We’re pushing as hard as we can on rent control.”
Rent control isn’t a new idea in Oakland. With “rent adjustment” in place since 1983, the city now finds itself in the league of larger metro areas like San Francisco and New York City in dealing with more acute challenges as price increases affect residents at a range of income levels.
Chow’s case revolves around the so-called “gold plating” of renovations, which the Oakland City Council voted to limit at a September 20 meeting. They also voted to extend the period of time over which landlords can bill for improvements, from the current five-year period to the life of the work.
The changes are designed to curtail what tenant advocates call “constructive evictions,” when renters are forced out due to maneuvers other than straightforward eviction notices—a fear that Chow said she can relate to.
“It’s obvious what she’s trying to do,” said Chow, pointing out other renovations she has yet to be billed for, like a totally new shower installed in response to a reported leak. “It’s only September, so who knows what else she’ll think up?”
Her landlord, identified in city property records as Debra Lew, did not respond to requests for comment.
The city’s move to strengthen loopholes in the local rent code has already raised arguments that stricter financial controls will discourage landlords from keeping buildings in working order. Still, that’s not all the council has done.
Also this fall, the City Council ruled that starting February 1, 2017, property owners must get advance approval from the rent board for any increase above inflation, or about 2 percent. That’s a big shift from Oakland’s current complaint-based system, an outlier among other Bay Area cities with rent control, which advocates say often silences tenants concerned about retribution.
At present, said at-large Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan at a meeting this summer, “It is left to tenants to enforce the law.”
In the same package of reforms given the green light on September 20, the council voted to require landlords to issue tenants a standardized city-authored eviction notice with translations in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. A copy of notices will then be kept with the city to better track prices.
During the past year, the council also approved tiered affordable housing fees on new development and a 10 percent cap on annual increases for rent-controlled units. They also limited landlords to passing through 70 percent of costs for property improvements, rather than 100 percent.
“We’re feeling like it’s a bit overkill at this point,” said Wayne Rowland, president of the East Bay Rental Housing Association. He argues that rent control has created “a two-tiered market,” where scarce rental inventory is contested by residents at vastly different income levels.
City staff has 120 days from Sept. 20 to sort out the specifics of the changes already approved by the council. In the meantime, local voters will have a chance to weigh in on the debate.
This series of two articles will look at the city’s initiatives in Part 1 and the Measure JJ ballot campaign, as well as familiar state limitations, in Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 2, “A battle at the ballot,” appearing October 28.
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