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Duplexes, like these two in West Oakland, and triplexes must temporarily abide by the city's rent control laws.

Oakland council votes in an emergency moratorium to protect duplex renters

on February 18, 2019

Oakland landlords who live alongside their tenants in duplexes and triplexes must temporarily abide by city rent control laws. On Thursday the Oakland City Council voted unanimously—with Councilmember Larry Reid (District 2) and Councilmember Loren Taylor (District 6) excused—to place an emergency moratorium on the rent control exemption previously given to owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes, which allowed these landlords to bypass city protections offered to tenants who live in other kinds of buildings. According to councilmembers, the stop-gap measure was to allow more time for the council to make a permanent decision on whether the city should eliminate the exemption. 

“I wanted to send a clear signal that we are listening to everyone who lives here,” said Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) who co-authored the moratorium legislation with Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas (District 2). 

The issue relates back to Measure Y, a November 2018 ballot measure that eliminated the Just Cause exemption for owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes. The city’s Just Cause regulations require landlords to have a good reason to evict their tenants, for example that they haven’t paid the rent or are damaging the property, among other listed reasons. But an exemption allowed owners of these multi-unit buildings an exception on the rule, provided they also live on the property. Measure Y passed with 58 percent of the vote.

To add further protection for renters in these units, Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1), proposed companion legislation this year that would also eliminate rent control exemptions for these same units. He argued that Measure Y means nothing without rent control protections, because landlords can still evict tenants through unaffordable rent increases. 

That’s what was happening to Arcelia and Armando Perez, an Oakland couple who have frequently attended council meetings to urge councilmembers to eliminate the exemption. Earlier this month, speaking through a translator, the couple told the council that in November, their neighbor and landlord, Daniel Gonzalez notified the couple that he would be increasing their rent from $825 to $1,800 per month as of March 1. That increase is not sustainable for the retired couple, who are living on a fixed combined income of about $2,000 per month. But Gonzalez argued at the meeting that he raised the rent to help him pay his $2,600 mortgage, saying he can no longer afford to “subsidize” his tenants’ rent. He is relying on income from his duplex to help his aging father retire, he said. 

Prior to last week’s vote, the line to speak during the public comment period snaked around council chambers. Fifty-six people, including the Perez family and their advocates signed up to speak on a Thursday afternoon, nearly filling the room.  

Tenants’ rights advocates outlined the reasons they believe the council needs to act now. “Longtime Oakland tenants keep being displaced because of this loophole,” Jackie Zaneri, an attorney at Centro Legal De La Raza, told the council. She spoke surrounded by tenants’ rights advocates with the Perez family by her side. “A tenant deserves the right to stability in their home. They have a right to know what the rent will be from one month to the next, from one year to the next.” 

Others warned the councilmembers that their vote could mean their job. “This is exactly why we supported you,” said Nicole Deane of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to new Councilmember Bas, co-author of the legislation, whom the alliance supported over her predecessor, Abel Guillen. “We’ll do the same for others if they do not vote for this.” 

But landlords challenged their assertion that the need for this moratorium is urgent. “This so-called ‘emergency’ is based on speculation based on what could happen,” said owner E.C. Brandon, who rents out part of her 1940s duplex in West Oakland. “We don’t have an emergency. We don’t have an earthquake. We don’t have a flood. We don’t have a fire.” 

Landlord Jeff Gilman told the council: “Don’t mess it up.” Constance Thomas, who rents a duplex she owns in West Oakland, told the council, “I love my tenants, but I don’t want to be married to them.” If the city mandates Just Cause and rent control protections, she said, she feels she’d lose the option to ever live by herself in her own home. 

Councilmembers Sheng Thao (District 4) and Gibson McElhaney expressed sympathy with both landlords and tenants and said that their hope is that the temporary moratorium will allow the council time to come up with a compromise. 

The council had originally planned to vote on the exemption elimination at their February 5 meeting, but an undisclosed “legal issue” delayed the vote. After tabling the item, several sources tell Oakland North, it became clear that Kalb and tenants’ rights advocates didn’t have the votes to pass the legislation, and instead agreed to push for a moratorium that would delay the vote. 

After hearing from the speakers, on Thursday the council voted to enact the temporary moratorium with support from all six members in attendance. (Reid and Taylor were excused.) Following the unanimous vote, the council voted to remove the original ordinance from the record with the plan to bring back revised legislation at a later date. It’s unclear when that might be, but councilmembers hinted that it will be within a few weeks. The moratorium will only remain in effect for the next 6 months. 

The passing of the moratorium allows the Perez family to stay in their home—at least for now. Following the vote, both stood to clap, smiling as they hugged tenants’ rights advocates, but their attention almost immediately turned to the future. As they left the chambers, still beaming, the couple waved at the attendees exiting the room and descended the steps saying, “See you soon.” 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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