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Oakland grapples with tenant protections and pitfalls

on December 8, 2020

Housing advocates in Oakland are warning that the current tenant protections enacted and expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic contain loopholes that leave renters vulnerable to evictions and even lawsuits.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors issued a temporary eviction ban to protect residents from being evicted in March. It covered renters, homeowners and those living in mobile home parks throughout the county. A few days later, California governor Gavin Newsom announced a temporary statewide eviction ban.

However, exceptions in the Alameda County ordinance allow property owners to effectively evict tenants by taking their units off the market or by claiming they pose a threat to public safety.

Reetu Mody, a staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza – a legal services agency that represents and advocates for the rights of low-income residents–says these loopholes have been used as a facade to displace tenants who have not paid rent because of COVID-related hardships.

“We’ve seen a lot of landlords try and go after tenants for things that are considered nuisance,” she says. “Like, this person is being too loud or this person left a bag of trash outside of their apartment. That’s not what that exception covers.”

By August, the Tenant Relief Act of 2020 was signed into law. This legislation provides eviction protections to renters who put in writing their inability to pay rent due to COVID-related hardships, like a loss of work or decrease in wages. What the state law doesn’t do is cancel past debt. According to the bill, tenants are still required to pay rent previously owed from March through August 2020. In addition to this, the bill requires renters to pay 25% of their rent owed between September 2020 and January 2021, which can be done on a monthly basis or in one lump sum. If tenants do not pay, landlords are allowed to recover these debts as early as March 1, 2021 in small claims court.

Mody believes litigation will make the lives of tenants, who are already vulnerable and who may not know their rights, even more difficult.

“Most tenants don’t really understand what their protections are,” Mody says. “In small claims court, you cannot have an attorney, so we’re already talking about a power imbalance because typically, tenants do not have access to the education and resources that would enable them to advocate for themselves in a legal setting.”

At the municipal level, under the city’s established Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO), protections were enacted to help prevent harassment from property owners of renters who cannot pay. Mody says they are already seeing an increase in tenants being harassed in Oakland.

“This includes everything from following them around with a video camera to utility shut offs,” she says. “In this time, people are home and need electricity and water even more than normal.”

The TPO is set to expire Jan. 31, 2020 and housing advocates are questioning what the city is going to do to protect it’s almost 100,000 tenants.

For organizations like the California Rental Housing Association (CalRHA), which represents over 16,000 members including property owners, evictions are not ideal and only serve as a last resort.

CalRHA President Sid Lakireddy says landlords are affected by the pandemic as well. In a newsletter, Lakireddy writes about “the plight of rental housing providers, especially small rental housing providers dependent on rental payments to keep their livelihood intact.” Lakireddy believes, without a sustainable financial solution for renters, the ripple effects will devastate the economy.

Policy experts say the shutdown has caused many Oakland residents to lose wages, making it harder for tenants to pay their rent. Carol Galante, professor of Affordable Housing and Urban Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement, “more than one million California renter’s households have experienced job loss during COVID-19, and this directly impacts their housing security.” Galante even urged the federal government to do more to protect residents.  

In Alameda County, between January and August of this year, 624,814 unemployment claims were filed. Across the state, nearly 9.5 million residents filed claims this year, according to the Employment Development Department. These numbers are expected to rise by the end of the year.

For Mody, debt and the possibility of lawsuits will have ripple effects such as residents having their wages or benefits garnished.

“It’s still a pretty complicated, scary situation, on top of which tenants are finding there’s nowhere to go,” Mody says. “They cannot find other housing at this point because folks just don’t have a job.”

The public health risk of evictions during a pandemic, compounded by a regional housing crisis, are not favorable scenarios for renters – who make up 60% of the total households in the city. Evictions may also affect the COVID-19 response because some renters are low-wage frontline workers who rely on stable housing to show up at this critical time.

Oakland lawmakers have not addressed whether they will expand or extend the current eviction moratorium beyond Jan. 31, 2021. But Mody says she believes with the newly elected city council, including housing advocate Carroll Fife, it will likely be discussed soon. For now, advocacy groups are pushing to expand protections for tenants on debt forgiveness, rent cancellation and better enforcement of protection laws.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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