Disputes between landlords and tenants are overwhelming Oakland's rent adjustment program. According to city officials, petitions filed by tenants to stop excessive rent increases and questionable evictions have doubled during the past three years, from 385 in 2012 to 739 so far this year. And appeals by landlords seeking to uphold rent increases or pass other costs onto tenants, have more than quadrupled, from 20 to 98.
Last week, Connie Taylor, director of Oakland's Rent Arbitration Program, which is responsible for enforcing Oakland's tenant-landlord laws, told members of the city council that the city needs to triple the existing fee that funds the program, from $30 to $110 per every rental unit, or it will be unable to enforce its rent adjustment rules and resolve tenant landlord disputes. However, both landlord and tenant advocates are opposing the proposed fee increase, on the grounds that it's excessive. "This seems ill-timed," Jill Broadhurst, executive director of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord advocacy group, told members of the council's finance committee at a meeting last week. "The city needs more affordable housing, and this isn't going to help that."
Under the current rules, landlords can pass 50 percent of the fee along to their tenants. Broadhurst said most landlords would surely do that, upping the tenant's yearly share from $15 to $55. For some landlords who own dozens or hundreds of units, the fee increase would be in the thousands of dollars.
"It's not a good idea at all," said James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union, in an interview. Both Vann and Broadhurst said the city should conduct a performance audit of the Rent Adjustment Program to see if its staffers can do more with their existing resources.
Taylor said in an interview that she met with City Auditor Brenda Roberts several months ago and answered questions about how the program is funded and works. "She said she might want to look at some cases, but I haven't heard from her since," said Taylor, who added that she wasn't opposed to an audit. "We're doing this as efficiently and as fast as we can, but we only have ten people."
Taylor said that for years, the rent adjustment program was able to hear most petitions filed by tenants within the sixty-day timeframe called for under Oakland's rent adjustment ordinance. But spillover from San Francisco's white-hot housing market is rapidly increasing rents in Oakland, leading some landlords to push through large, often illegal rent hikes, while other landlords attempt to force out low-income tenants. Recently, petition hearings have started to take ninety days on average, said Taylor. Appeals, which are frequently filed by landlords who are unhappy when hearing officers uphold a tenant's petition against a rent increase or other issue, now take even longer because the rent board, composed of members appointed by the mayor, and approved by the city council, has been lacking a quorum at its meetings.
"It takes way too long for the tenants to get a hearing," said Ana Baires Mira, an attorney with the nonprofit Central Legal de la Raza. "We file, and three months later they have a hearing, then it takes one month to get a decision, so by the time anything happens, it has been six months."
Baires Mira argues that Oakland needs to hire more hearing officers so more petitions could be heard quickly. "If the board was bigger, with more alternates, that would speed up appeals," she said.
Vann said, however, that the program suffers from deeper flaws. He and other tenant advocates want to see Oakland adopt true rent control.
According to Vann, Oakland's rent adjustment program doesn't provide the same level of protections for tenants as real rent control because Oakland landlords can legally raise rents as high as the want to, even on rent-controlled units — unless a tenant files a petition with the rent board to stop the rent hike from going into effect. A hearing officer then considers whether or not the rent increase is permissible, and tenants and landlords make their arguments in formal hearings. The same process holds for other problems like reduced housing services. The problem is that the law requires a tenant to not only know the city's rules, but also have the time and skills to argue his or her case.
Robbie Clark of the tenants' rights group Causa Justa/Just Cause said tenants could be more effectively protected from rent gouging if the law were reversed so that landlords have to petition the city to raise rents above the permitted amounts, instead of putting the onus on tenants to petition against illegal rent increases. According to Clark and Vann, many renters simply don't know their rights, so illegal rent increases go into effect because tenants don't file a petition.
"The simple fix is just make landlords petition," said Clark. "If you have a landlord that owns five different properties, and they have to petition to increase the rent on them, then you know what the rents are and what's happening at those properties."
According to Vann, a longtime tenants' advocate, Oakland's current rent laws were written by landlords as a means of derailing a campaign for true rent control in the late 1970s. "In early 1980, tenant advocates fielded an initiative petition for rent control modeled on the best parts of Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Monica ordinances," Vann wrote in an email. "When the measure began circulating for signatures in early spring, real estate and landlord representatives got together with [then-] Mayor Lionel Wilson and hurriedly wrote and rushed [through] city council approval [of] the Residential Rent, Relocation and Arbitration Board Ordinance." According to Vann, the rent control ballot initiative was narrowly defeated after real estate interests outspent them during the campaign.
"We're in this severe crisis, and we have this ineffective policy," said Clark about the existing rent adjustment program. "Putting more money in a broken system, you could argue that's not going to help tenants much. This program fee should be coming with many other changes to the program."
Baires Mira said the core problem is that the city isn't doing anything proactive. "I think there's a lot of landlords who don't even follow rent control laws," she said. "In the typical week, I see maybe ten to twenty clients, and I would say one-third of their landlords have nothing to do with the rent board and are just refusing to follow the law.
"A way to fix this would be, as Santa Monica does it, maybe Los Angeles, they have proactive rental inspection programs where the city checks units to make sure they conform with habitability laws," Baires Mira continued. "If Oakland did that and had a proactive program, tenants would know they have rights."