As rising rents continue to displace current Oakland residents, a new ordinance passed by the city council on November 5 seeks to protect tenants from landlords who try to push them out by “harassing” them. Tenants rights groups charge this is an increasingly common tactic by building owners seeking new, more affluent tenants who can pay higher rents.
The new ordinance explicitly prohibits sixteen forms of harassment including failure to make needed repairs, threats to report a tenant’s immigration status, removal of property, physical abuse, and more. Councilmember Dan Kalb, who introduced the proposal, said constituents had been reporting such problems to him for a while when Causa Justa/Just Cause approached him last spring with the idea of a ban on landlord harassment. San Francisco and several other cities already had such laws in effect.
Jillian Barber, one of the tenants who spoke at Oakland City Council hearings, described her experiences with landlord harassment, including repeated invalid attempts to evict her, loss of heat and hot water for a week, verbal abuse, and more. She said the harassment increased after she spoke out in public on the issue. Barber noted that she lives in Adams Point, an area where housing prices are skyrocketing, and said the harassment was “a way to get us out so they can raise the rent to market value.”
Now that the ordinance has passed, Kalb said, “The city has a big responsibility to get this message out. It’s important for landlords to know, and important for tenants to know what their options are. The goal is to deter these kinds of behavior.”
The new ordinance includes some compromises that tenant groups say limit its effectiveness. It will not apply to newly built housing for 15 years after the first tenants move in. “The landlords wanted to exempt all non-rent-control apartments [those built after 1983],” Kalb said. “Their argument was that the measure would deter the construction of new housing.” The exemption that made it into the ordinance applies only to buildings constructed from now on.
James Vann, co-founder of the Oakland Tenants Union, responded in an email to the city council, “Why should it even be suggested that owners of new construction be made free to harass and retaliate against tenants with impunity! By what rationale does that make sense?” But the exemption remained.
A more basic issue was the amendment that removed “administrative remedies” from the ordinance. “The administrative piece would give tenants a place to go to register complaints,” explained Causa Justa/Just Cause organizer Alma Blackwell. Then a city administrative process would be able to review the complaints and fine landlords for violations. Without this provision, tenants will have to enforce the law by suing landlords. An administrative remedy is “an important piece that has to be there,” Blackwell said. “That’s going to be the fight next year.”
Kalb agrees. “My intention is to work with the city administrator next year in creating an administrative remedy,” he said. “I think some landlords would welcome it, because it would reduce the number of people who go to court and the potential fine would probably be less than a court would award.” He added, however, that it will probably take at least a year after the City Council approves the program for city staff to write regulations, hire staff, and get the administrative procedure in place.
Immediately though, he said, the ordinance calls on the city housing office “to set up an information and referral system on the Tenant Protection Ordinance,” so tenants will have a place to go with questions and learn what steps they can take.
Despite these limitations, most tenant advocates see the ordinance as an important tool in the fight against displacement. “We know that many tenants in Oakland have been harassed by landlords until they don’t want to deal with it any more and decide to move,” Blackwell said. “This policy will help tenants fight against this happening.”
“I’m thrilled we were able to pass this,” Kalb said. “We have to do whatever we can to reduce displacement and protect people who live here.”