Shortly after the birth of her youngest child, Kim Isaacs received notice that her West Oakland apartment building was now owned by Countrywide Home Loans. The then-subprime giant had foreclosed on her landlord, and wanted her out. Isaacs suddenly had become one of the hidden victims of the foreclosure crisis — tenants in foreclosed buildings. According to a study by the statewide organization Tenants Together, 7,000 housing units hit by foreclosure in Alameda County last year were tenant-occupied. That's 40 percent of all the foreclosed units in the county.
Countrywide offered Isaacs just $1,000 and two weeks to find a new place to live, pack up her things, and move out. "I told them, 'No way!'" she said. She needed more money and more time to find another place for herself and her seven children. And as a member of Causa Justa/Just Cause, an Oakland and San Francisco tenants-rights organization, she also knew that city, state, and federal laws prohibit new property owners from simply evicting tenants.
As a result, Countrywide's attempts to legally evict Isaacs failed. But then one evening in December 2007, an East Bay Municipal Utility District representative turned off the water to her building. Isaacs believes to this day that Countrywide failed to pay the water bill "on purpose, as a form of trying to push me out." She added: "These banks get these properties and they intimidate people, kick them out on the street."
The next morning Isaacs and fifteen other members and staff of Just Cause showed up at East Bay MUD's downtown Oakland headquarters, demanding that the utility turn on the water. "They said, 'That's between you and the landlord. We can't do anything,'" Isaacs recalled. "But we were like, 'We're not leaving until you turn the water on.'"
Finally, East Bay MUD board member Andy Katz got the agency's staff to turn on the water. But when Isaacs and other tenants described their experiences with water shutoffs at East Bay MUD's February 2008 board meeting, some board members were skeptical, recalled Just Cause organizer Robbie Clark. The board members were worried about how the agency could afford to keep the water on if no one was paying the bills. Nonetheless, the board approved Katz' proposal for a six-month moratorium on water shutoffs for foreclosed tenants.
Then, East Bay MUD studied the issue more closely and discovered that in just four months, it had turned off water to 600 tenants in foreclosed buildings. Katz, meanwhile, had persuaded then-Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, who is now a state senator, to introduce legislation designed to solve the problem.
Typically, creditors like East Bay MUD can place liens on properties if the owners fail to pay their bills. Then when the property is sold, the creditors get paid. But a state law enacted in the 1970s barred municipal utility districts from putting liens on property in California. According to East Bay MUD lobbyist Randy Kanouse, the law was passed at the behest of some Central Valley property owners who were engaged in a dispute with their municipal utility district over unpaid bills. The law meant that if East Bay MUD kept the water on at a foreclosed property and the bank refused to pay the bill, then the agency would never get its money.
That's how Isaacs found herself testifying at a hearing in the state Capitol before an Assembly committee in 2009. She recalled that before the hearing, Hancock aide Hans Herman warned her: "I don't know how this is going to go."
"I was a little nervous," Isaacs said. "They looked so serious and stiff. I was talking, getting teary-eyed, trying to get my point across." Then, in the roll-call vote, "the first person said 'yea,' the second person said 'yea.' [Herman] looked at me like, 'Wow, this never happened before!' Finally everybody said 'yea.' By then I'm in tears."
Isaacs' testimony, Kanouse said, helped legislators "put a face on this problem, to understand that this is about protecting innocent people caught up in this mess." But it wasn't enough to convince then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed the bill. So the next year, Kanouse went to business and realtor organizations, arguing that shutting off water in a foreclosed building creates an eyesore that brings down property values in the neighborhood. Armed with letters from business groups, Kanouse met with the governor's staff. On September 30, 2010, Schwarzenegger signed the water-shut-off bill into law.
Assured of its ability to recoup losses from unpaid bills, the East Bay MUD board voted last month to keep water on in foreclosed buildings, and for tenants in all multi-unit properties in which the landlord fails to pay the water bill.
And with the water victory under their belts, Just Cause activists said they plan to continue organizing tenants in foreclosed buildings throughout the Bay Area. "For us, it's a huge issue," Clark said, "especially their right to stay in their homes."
The number of tenants statewide who are displaced by foreclosure continues to grow, reported Tenants Together in its third annual edition of California Renters in the Foreclosure Crisis. The number topped more than 200,000 in California in 2010. The report also contended that tenants who are unaware of their legal rights are often pressured into moving out. In addition, many renters face utility shutoffs, loss of security deposits, and health hazards from neglected buildings.