The City Council could change Oakland's rent laws to bring more protections to tenants. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s City Council is considering a big package of new renter protections that tenant advocates say will make it harder for landlords to harass or evict renters.

On Monday, the City Council’s Community & Economic Development Committee, which meets twice a month, approved a slew of changes to Oakland’s existing three tenant protection laws: the Rent Adjustment Program Ordinance, the Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, and the Tenant Protection Ordinance. 

The Tenant Protection Ordinance was created in 2014 to stop landlords from harassing tenants, and give renters the ability to take them to court if they do. In the six years since that law was passed, Oakland has still seen, and gone after, many cases of “extreme harassment” by landlords, said City Attorney Barbara Parker at Monday’s meeting. 

Now, during the pandemic, “tenant harassment is on the rise, as some landlords turn to unlawful harassment to drive tenants out as courts are not open,” Parker said. The proposal now headed to the Council would expand the definition of illegal harassment by preventing landlords from shutting off utilities, threatening to report a tenant’s immigration status, recording video or audio inside tenants’ homes, and more. 

The updates would also increase the amount of legal damages that particularly vulnerable tenants, like older and ill renters, would be entitled to if their landlords violate the law.

Oakland and Alameda County both put eviction moratoriums in place to give tenants extra protections during the coronavirus crisis, but the proposed new rules would be permanent.

City Attorney Parker wrote the proposal with Councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas (District 2, Chinatown and directly East of Lake Merritt) and Dan Kalb (District 1, North Oakland). At Monday’s meeting, the committee—Councilmembers Bas, Loren Taylor (District 6, Eastmont-Seminary), Larry Reid (District 7, East Oakland, north of San Leandro), and Noel Gallo (District 5, Fruitvale)— unanimously approved their item, sending it to the full City Council for a final vote July 14.

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The most controversial piece of the proposal would protect tenants from being evicted if they bring in additional roommates after a landlord “unreasonably refuses” to allow them to do so. The proposal doesn’t allow tenants to overcrowd units, however; limits on maximum occupancy under state law would still apply. In most cases, renters would be limited to two tenants per bedroom.

Tenant advocates said the pandemic has forced many family members to move in together, so this change in the rules would protect them from eviction if the landlord doesn’t approve. One North Oakland renter who spoke at yesterday’s meeting said she’d benefit from this change too, because her landlord has refused to allow her to fill a vacant room in her three-bedroom apartment for years since the original lease allowed only two tenants. 

“I have a vacant bedroom in the midst of a housing crisis,” said Megan Abell. “I’ve tried negotiating to no avail.”

Many landlords who spoke at Monday’s meeting said updating Oakland’s Just Cause ordinance to let renters add new roommates would constitute a major loss of control for property owners, who they say should get to decide who lives in their units. 

They also argued that tenants in rent-controlled units might try to abuse the new rule and bring in new roommates right before they move out. That way, landlords said, renters could avoid the rent increases that are allowed when there’s a vacancy in a rent-controlled unit. 

Chanee Minor, Rent Adjustment Program manager, said state law would prevent that. (RAP oversees Oakland’s rent-control program.)

“If an original tenant vacates, the new tenant would have a right to stay, but they don’t have a right to stay at the old rent,” she said at the meeting.

Minor said the city can and should come up with regulations that make sure renters don’t take advantage of this rule by, for example, over-charging subtenants and pocketing the money. The proposal asks the rent board to come up with those rules.

Landlords could still petition for a 5% rent hike per new occupant, as well.

Another proposed change deals with how much a landlord can raise rent each year. Oakland currently allows a maximum 10% rent increase on rent-controlled properties, but the state’s 2019 Tenant Protection Act permits either a 10% increase or raising the rent by the Consumer Price Index plus 5%, whichever is lower. Because the CPI is currently 3.5%, state law currently only allows a rent hike of 8.5% yearly in Oakland.

The proposal also caps late fees for unpaid rent at 3% of the monthly rent (though all late fees are temporarily blocked during the pandemic). The proposal initially capped those late fees at $50, but many landlords complained. 

Councilmember Taylor said he sympathized, arguing that a relatively small $50 late fee on a pricey apartment is “essentially begging them to pay late rent.” 

Another piece of the proposal makes it harder for landlords to kick tenants out if the renter breaks rules that were added to an existing lease. Say a landlord makes changes to a lease that a tenant doesn’t agree to or know about, and the tenant doesn’t follow those rules. In most cases, the proposed legislation would stop the landlord from evicting that tenant.

At Monday’s meeting, numerous landlords criticized the package of tenant protections, asking the committee to wait until after the pandemic to consider making big changes.

“Right now, we’re trying to survive,” said a property owner identified as Marty on the Zoom call. “You’re taking away the ability for a landlord to run a business. This might cause us to be displaced from Oakland while tenants have provisions to keep them here.”

But tenant advocates said the pandemic makes it even more urgent to protect renters.”

“With unemployment skyrocketing, friends are moving in with friends, children are moving back home, families are taking in their elders,” so the flexibility around new occupants is necessary, said Hunter King from Causa Justa/Just Cause, an organization that advocates for tenants. 

An earlier version of the proposal was already brought to the City Council in April, but officials sent it back to the committee for more discussion and to gather more feedback. The authors of the legislation said they made several tweaks after talking to property owners, though landlords at Monday’s meeting said it wasn’t enough. Some owners of just one or two rental properties said the laws will disproportionately burden them, when large landlords should be the target.

Multiple affordable housing providers said they’d been convinced to support it, however. They were against the proposal originally, since it removes an exemption in the Tenant Protection Ordinance for non-profit affordable housing providers and newly constructed units. Representatives from Mercy Housing and Resources for Community Development said they worked out their disagreements with the City Attorney’s Office and are now confident the ordinances won’t stop them from building affordable housing in Oakland.

Councilmember Bas said the proposal is an equity measure, as Black residents are disproportionately renters, disproportionately rent-burdened—spending too much of their income on rent—, and disproportionately likely to be evicted.

Councilmember Gallo said he’s appreciative of landlords for providing housing, and knows tenants in that housing need more protections.

“I don’t need to remind us the growth in the homeless population is tremendous,” he said at the meeting. “We need to accommodate Grandma and Grandpa that I see on the street now.” 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.