With complaints of abuse by landlords piling up, advocates say it's time for real rent control in Oakland.
The Oakland Rent Board met for the first time in over two months last week. Even with the level of tenant petitions against excessive rent increases at an all time high - the number of petitions this year is double what it was in 2012 - the Rent Board had failed to meet due to a lack of quorum since September. This has led the petition process to drag on for three months on average, and up to six months in many cases. The City's rent law calls for cases to be resolved within 60 days.
While City staff recently proposed an increase in the fee to landlords and tenants that funds Oakland's Rent Adjustment Program (RAP) - from $30 to $110 per year - to address the backlog of cases, housing rights advocates are calling for a complete overhaul of the program. The fatal flaw of Oakland's current program, advocates say, is that the burden is entirely on tenants to enforce the law. If a tenant does not file a petition contesting a rent increase within 60 days, there is no legal mechanism to ensure that landlords follow the law, which stipulates how much rent can be increased for certain types of rental units in Oakland.
As James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union explains, the RAP program was written and passed by a pro-landlord City Council in 1980 in response to a grass roots ballot initiative that would have established a rent control law similar to those in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Santa Monica. Oakland renters have been stuck with the City's flawed law for over three decades as a result of this political maneuvering.
Organizations like Oakland Tenants Union and Causa Justa :: Just Cause have called instead for a real rent control law, meaning that landlords - not tenants - would be responsible for filing a petition with the Rent Board to raise rents above the standard amount allowed under the law (based on inflation). Under such a system, landlords would be responsible for complying with the law and bearing the burden of navigating the City's appeals process, not the very tenants who are facing increasing pressure from the City's housing crisis.
Eviction and Rent-Hike Complaints Skyrocket in Oakland (East Bay Express)
The proposed increase in the Rent Program Service Fee - from $30 to $110 per year - would have increased housing costs for Oakland renters.
The City Council Finance Committee dropped a proposed increase to the City's rent program fee at its November 10 meeting, following a loud response from housing rights advocates. The fee is used to administer the City's Rent Adjustment Program (RAP), which provides some limited protections for tenants in certain apartments from excessive rent increases.
City staff had proposed an increase in the fee, which is paid annually and supposed to be split equally between tenants and landlords, to $110 from the current $30. The RAP has recently seen a spike in the number of petitions filed by tenants contesting rent increases and now faces a growing backlog of appeals cases, which staff used to justify the near quadruple of the current fee.
Tenant advocates noted, however, that the RAP has had large surpluses in recent years, with a $700,000 surplus in revenue in the last fiscal year, and a $1 million surplus two years ago. The Oakland Tenants Union, which monitors RAP activities and supports tenants, also pointed out that the RAP program as it is currently structured is deeply flawed and opposed a large fee increase without a major overhaul of the program. In fact, proposals to restructure the current program are currently being considered by Mayor Schaaf's recently formed "housing cabinet" and many opponents questioned the wisdom of increasing the fee when that process is just getting underway.
Furthermore, OTU noted that the current backlog in appeals cases from tenants has largely been caused by the Rent Board's failure to meet in over two months to hear appeals and conduct business. Mayor Schaaf finally nominated a qualified tenant alternate representative to the Board who was approved by City Council last week.
At its meeting on Tuesday morning, members of the City Council Finance Committee recognized the large number of public comments that had been received in opposition to the fee increase and postponed the matter indefinitely.
After tenants advocates are arrested at a City Council hearing, Alameda passes a temporary halt on some rent increases and evictions.
At a November 4 City Council hearing on skyrocketing rents and increasing evictions in Alameda, tenant advocates literally had to fight for their right to be heard. With landlord representatives packing the Council chambers, tenants and housing rights advocate were locked outside of the chambers. A group of tenant advocates ultimately forced their way in, leading to a violent confrontation and two arrests.
Confronted with the severity of the housing crisis in Alameda - the average rent in Alameda have more than doubled over the past decade and reports of no fault evictions have become commonplace - the City Council voted to impose a 65-day moratorium on rent increases over 8% and no cause evictions.
While this decision is a welcome recognition that Alameda is no exception from the Bay Area's dramatic housing crisis, the Alameda Renters Coalition is working with City staff to establish a permanent rent control law there. Renters' rights advocates have said they will pursue a ballot initiative next year if they are unable to reach an agreement over the details of such a law with the Council.
Alameda: City Council imposes moratorium on some rent increases (Contra Costa Times)
FAQs on the 65-day moratorium (City of Alameda)
Alameda Landlord Uses Moratorium Loophole, Evicts Apartment Complex (KPIX)