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.
"We felt betrayed," Laguardia said of the ordinance.
Before the new law passed, San Jose investor and property owner Matt Sridhar purchased the Bay View Apartments for a reported $6.1 million. He didn't return the Express' multiple calls or emails for this story, but he's previously described the debate over renter protections in Alameda to this paper's reporters as "a storm in a tea kettle" and "a waste of [his] time."
Today, renovated apartments at 470 Central are being advertised for $2,150, more than double what Laguardia pays. "This guy is heartless. He doesn't care. It's all business," he said of his landlord.
Simon-Weisberg, the tenant advocate who's been working with Laguardia, along with attorneys at the East Bay Community Law Center, described his landlord as "one of these speculative investors" whose business model is "basically to evict all of the long-term tenants, evict the folks of color, do some basic cleanup, and quadruple the rent."
But Ashcraft defended the higher rent, and said that the residents were paying "way under market" for these units.
After renters got M1 on the ballot, a competing signature-gathering effort funded by landlords failed to qualify. And that's when Alameda city council stepped in and voted Measure L1 onto the ballot (L1 is the city's existing ordinance repackaged for voters). Council justified putting L1 in front of voters because they say it gives them options.
Instead, it's sparked one of the most contentious, expensive ballot brawls in the East Bay.
Alameda is in many ways a unique petri dish for rent-control policy. Tenants make up more than half of the residents, but the electorate traditionally consists of conservative-leaning, middle-class homeowners. Island denizens are an inimitable bunch: There are NIMBYs living next to young professionals who commute via ferry to San Francisco, immigrants, ex-Oaklanders, and both wealthy and impoverished families. Proponents argue that, if progressive renter protections such as M1 can win on the island, it's possible that rent-control laws will be embraced throughout the Bay Area (see sidebar, "Control the Situation," on page 21.)
Enter the California Apartment Association: The group doesn't have an official position on L1, but it definitely wants M1 to fail. And the CAA Issues Committee has raked in more than $1 million as of October 22 to kill it.
In Alameda, the CAA's independent-expenditure committee has spent nearly $100,000 on No-on-M1 advertising, as of October 13. By comparison, ARC's group has spent just $4,607 in the past month.
The two sides are separated by more than money. The M1 and L1 contingents couldn't be further apart when it comes to rent-protection ideology.
Howard with the CAA said his organization doesn't support any form of rent control, straight up. He's even unconvinced that there exists a widespread problem of unfair rent increases or unjust landlord evictions in the Bay Area. "There were several bad actors who were a little aggressive," Howard admitted of the situation in Alameda. "But the city should've focused more on dealing with those actors" instead of passing sweeping new laws.
Meanwhile, Catherine Pauling, an Alameda renter and activist with Alameda Renters Coalition, said that no-cause evictions are being used against longstanding and responsible tenants. "We all know people who have come home to sixty-day notices" because of greedy landlords trying to exploit surging rent prices, she said.
It's perhaps difficult for voters to distill the truth of each rent-control measure. For instance, one of the main talking points by the anti-M1 contingent is that the measure will create "a $4 million bureaucracy," including the formation of a rent board (a la in Berkeley). Lawn signs, mailers, TV ads, and even some council members decry M1 and cite this $4 million number.
But Pauling dismissed this amount as "ludicrous." She noted that Alameda's own city attorney says that the rent board will be paid for by a fee imposed on landlords, to the tune of approximately $235 per unit, per year.
And the city attorney's impartial analysis also estimates that L1's rent program will cost approximately $1.95 million annually — which will be paid by taxpayers out of the general fund (for now).
"The misinformation that the city itself has contributed to confound a voter-driven initiative is unconscionable," Pauling said of the $4 million claim.
But M1 critics also have reasonable, fact-based beefs with the measure, such as their argument that its cap on rent increases is too extreme.
According to ballot language, M1 would limit hikes to once a year, and at only 65 percent of the Consumer Price Index. This year, that would allow a 1.3 percent increase, or $32 more each month for a tenant paying $2,000.
Howard says this ceiling is "limiting an owner to get a fair return on their investment." Others point out that several other rent-control measures on the November ballot, and even Oakland, allow higher limits on rents.
But tenant groups refute these arguments by pointing out that the CPI fluctuates — it was 3 percent in 2012 — and that the two-thirds of the CPI cap allows for steady and predictable rent increases that benefit both landlords and renters.
Many landlords also worry that M1's relocation fees are too steep, especially for mom-and-pop operators of small buildings or duplexes. Consider: If an owner wants to repair, move-in to, or take a unit off the market, they would have to pay at minimum $7,300 (for a single tenant that's resided fewer than three years) and up to $18,300 (for a disabled or senior tenant more than three years) to a renter as a relocation fee.
Ashcraft and others say these fees are not only too high, but that they also actually harm seniors and disabled people trying to rent in Alameda: Landlords will be less likely to offer these individuals leases if they might have to pay more to relocate them.
But Laguardia himself views the relocation fees as practical. He described his search for a new apartment — just in case — as "a job fair," with often twenty to thirty people vying for only one unit. He also pointed out that the first and last month's rent, plus a deposit, can add up to more than $7,000 for a one bedroom. This is not to mention the physical costs of moving.
"If you see something affordable, everyone wants it," he said.
Pauling agreed. "Let's be realistic about how much it costs to move a three-bedroom apartment for a senior," she said.
Relocation is why Pauling said she got involved with ARC and the fight for renter protections in the first place. During the past few years, she said she's witnessed more and more friends getting priced out of Alameda because of rent hikes. Today, her biggest fear is that she won't survive on the island long enough to see her kids graduate.
"I sincerely hope that I can stay here another five years," she said. "I hope I can get my kids through high school."
Laguardia empathizes. "Our kids are on the verge of stopping their school," he said while holding his daughter. He hopes that his lawyers will successfully challenge his eviction and find a way for him to stay in his tiny apartment. But he also admitted that it's scary to have no other options.
"If we lose the case, then where do we go from here?"