On a recent Saturday, Rommel "Mel" Laguardia sank into a leather sofa while his four-year-old daughter buzzed between the kitchen and his lap. The 49-year-old, his wife, and their three kids squeeze into a 400-square-foot apartment, a tiny-as-it-sounds unit in west Alameda with thin woven carpet and faded eggshell paint. Their living room doubles as a bedroom for two kids; the couch is pushed up against a wooden bunk bed. His youngest sleeps in a small toy bed next to her parents' in the adjoining room. On this unusually warm morning, his eldest son zoned out on a laptop on the lower bunk while his other daughter still slept on the top. Rent for the spot is less than the median price on the island, but still sets them back $1,064 a month.
And the family could be evicted at any moment.
The threat of having to move began a year ago this month, when his family and the 32 other Bay View Apartment residents received eviction letters from the building's new owner. Some moved out, but many stayed and fought the notice. They were actually able to delay it for a few months. But another sixty-day eviction arrived this past July, and Laguardia was supposed to be out more than a month ago — that is, until pro-bono lawyers stepped in to help.
Now, his Alameda apartment in many ways has become ground zero of the Bay Area's rental-housing crisis. Which is a frustrating distinction, he said. "At first, I thought I could deal with this, that everything would be fine," Laguardia told the Express of his stand against his landlord. "But it would be nice to wake up in the morning on a beautiful day like this and not have to worry about getting kicked out."
The Filipino family's predicament is one of the main reasons that Measure M1 is on the ballot in the city. Grassroots volunteers hustled enough signatures this summer to qualify M1. And, if it passes next Tuesday, the new law would shield many of the island's renters from unwarranted evictions and sizeable rent increases. And it might even keep the Laguardias in their home.
But the California Apartment Association has raised more than $1 million to defeat renter-protection measures on ballots throughout the Bay Area. The CAA doesn't believe in any kind of rent control, and argues that the plight of tenants is due to a "perfect storm of high job growth and lack of new housing," not a dearth of tenant-friendly laws, according to spokesman Joshua Howard.
Leah Simon-Weisberg, a renter-advocate with the nonprofit group Tenants Together who helped write M1, says the measure and other initiatives like it are common-sense protections, such as those in place in cities like Oakland and Santa Monica.
And they're needed, she argued. She told the Express that she's observed a significant "uptick in evictions" by Bay Area landlords, who are kicking out low-rent tenants in anticipation of tougher rent-control laws after Election Day. How bad is it?
"Oh, it's huge," she said. "Whole buildings are being cleared out."
Some of Laguardia's neighbors at Bay View Apartments do in fact enjoy postcard vistas of the waterfront. But that's not why Laguardia loves his longtime home at 470 Central Avenue. It's because his kids grew up there. They went to the elementary school immediately next door. And his youngest hopes to attend there next year, too. In fact, she already knows its name. "Paden School," she shouted to her dad, then smiled.
He also really, really likes his neighbors: The apartment complex was once owned by a Filipino couple, and many immigrants moved in over the years. "I've developed such a good strong community here," Laguardia said of his seven years as a tenant. They throw potlucks on holidays — plenty of lumpia, he said — and often barbecue together. A woman next door frequently keeps an eye on the kids, and they don't pay for day care. He and his wife both work a short drive from the apartment, a commute they cherish.
So, when every tenant received eviction notices last year, Laguardia said he was devastated — but not defeated. Instead, he organized a group to show up at city council.
Councilwoman Marilyn Ashcraft described these packed-house, contentious, late-night meetings with renters as "Bloody Tuesday." But she also sympathized with the tenants. "We had no controls on what a landlord could do. They could raise rent more than once a year. And there were landlords that were doing just that," she told the Express.
The city eventually passed a new ordinance in March. The law includes provisions that officials say protects renters: It limits the number of annual evictions to 25 percent of a complex's total residents, and the number of rent increases to just one per year. The law puts a threshold of 5 percent on rent hikes for existing and new tenants; if the rent goes up more than this, it triggers mediation.
"Is it perfect? No. Can we make it better? Yes," is how Ashcraft described the new rules.
But Laguardia and others with the Alameda Renters Coalition felt cheated. They said the ordinance isn't really rent control because it doesn't eliminate "no-cause" evictions, which allow landlords to boot tenants for no reason. They also wanted a hard-and-fast cap on rent hikes, since most renters don't have the time, knowledge, or even courage to mediate with a landlord at Alameda's Rent Review Advisory Committee.