San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
By Rachel Swan
Citing escalating rents that tenant advocates call a threat to Oakland’s character, the City Council threw its support Wednesday behind a November ballot measure that would limit property owners’ ability to charge more and carry out evictions.
The council voted unanimously to approve the measure, which was introduced by Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, after a four-hour debate that began Tuesday evening and ended well after midnight.
Some of the more than 300 people who addressed the council grew tearful as they described their fear that they could be forced out of longtime homes. Some landlords grew equally emotional as they complained that they were being vilified for trying to make an honest living.
Soaring rents have become a raw topic in Oakland, a traditionally working-class city that is seeing the first inklings of an economic boom as commercial projects sprout up and Uber prepares to open its new headquarters downtown.
At the same meeting, the council voted 7-0 to pass a companion ordinance to the ballot measure that will take effect immediately. Councilwoman Desley Brooks abstained from voting on the measure, which was proposed by council members Dan Kalb, Abel Guillen and Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
Burden on landlords
Both the ballot measure and the new ordinance require property owners to petition the city for approval of certain rent increases. Oakland’s current laws put the burden on tenants to petition against rent hikes that exceed the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index, which last year was 1.7 percent. The new laws would instead put the burden on landlords to prove that such increases are justified.
“I’ve seen people put in situations where families had to double or triple up in apartments just to afford to live in the cities that they work in,” said Mia Carbajal, a housing activist who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she said her family faced many of the insecurities now being felt by lower-income Oakland residents.
Some landlords pledged support for the new rent protections, calling them justifiable. Several, including public-school teacher and property owner Stephanie Schaudel, held signs with the slogan, “Don’t trick tenants.”
But others said the new law and ballot measure will unfairly penalize mom-and-pop landlords who have little control over Oakland’s economic fortunes. Some opponents such as Doug Sager, president of the Oakland-Berkeley Association of Realtors, said stronger rent protections could have an adverse effect on Oakland’s rental market by driving small landlords out of business.
“My small-property-owner clients are hard-working folks that have built sweat equity into retiring on a rental income,” Sager said. “Sadly, the distaste for doing business in Oakland has become more and more unbearable. What’s the result? Less rentals and a more unstable market.”
In addition to the landlord petitioning requirement, the ballot measure and new ordinance each include several tenant protections.
The Renters Protection Act ballot measure would expand the city’s just-cause eviction law to multiunit buildings constructed through 1995, meaning that owners of those buildings could evict tenants only for violating the terms of a lease, or by virtue of the state Ellis Act, which allows landlords to leave the rental business. The city’s current law applies only to buildings constructed before 1981.
The new ordinance will limit the amount that property owners can charge their tenants for capital improvements to a building. It will also require buyers of duplexes and triplexes to live in their buildings for at least two years before those buildings are exempt from rent control.
State law exceptions
Neither law would apply to rents on single-family homes or buildings constructed after 1983, which are exempted under a state law that restricts local rent controls.
Kalb said both measures were designed to rein in a small pool of venal landlords.
“By and large, most landlords neither abuse their tenants nor impose unfair rent increases,” Kalb said. “Nevertheless, given the incentive they have to raise rents, and the fact that there are some unscrupulous landlords, we have a strong incentive to enforce tenant protections.”
Schaudel, the schoolteacher and property owner who supports both measures, said they would help maintain Oakland’s diversity.
“Currently we’re seeing a bleeding — a mass exodus — of people all throughout” the Bay Area, Schaudel said. “And the lack of renter protections has everything to do with that.”