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Next year, Karen would have marked her 30-year anniversary of living at the beige four-plex on the corner of 52nd and Genoa streets in Oakland’s Santa Fe neighborhood.
She’s lived there the longest of all eight residents, though some of her building-mates have been in their apartments for a decade. It’s all women living there, and they’ve formed a “big family,” said tenant Chris Kross. They eat dinner together and garden in their backyard, and they set up a “cheapo blow-up pool” where they can share some beers when the weather gets hot.
“When I came to the U.S., this is the first place I wanted to stay,” said Karen about the Bay Area. Now, she’s considering returning to her native Haiti after a three-decade-plus “love affair” with Oakland.
Karen, who declined to share her last name, Kross, and their six neighbors in the North Oakland property all received an eviction notice last week. The tenants we spoke to said they can’t afford market-rate rents these days, and they’re worried about finding new places to live in Oakland during a viral pandemic.
The building’s owner, Larry Raymond, is invoking the Ellis Act, a state law that lets landlords evict tenants if they take the building off the rental market altogether, turning it into condos, occupying it themselves, leaving it vacant, or demolishing it. In Oakland, if landlords decide to re-rent the property within 10 years, they have to offer it first to the tenants they evicted, at the same price they were charging before.
Under the Ellis Act, renters typically get 120 days to move out. If they are older than 62, or disabled, they can apply to stay for a year. Karen is a senior and Kross has a disability, so they’ve both petitioned the Oakland Rent Adjustment Program, the city agency that oversees renter-landlord laws, for the extension.
When Karen got the “notice of termination of tenancy” letter in the mail two weeks ago, she wasn’t very surprised. Because they’ve been there so long, residents in her rent-controlled building pay around $1,300 for their two-bedroom apartments, less than half of the median price in Oakland, according to real estate site Zumper. Over the past decade or so, Karen has watched the neighborhood change as nearby rental and home prices have risen and more high-end retailers have opened in the Temescal business district a few blocks away. She assumes her landlord wants to get rid of the low-paying residents, and says tenants were told as much by Raymond and associates on multiple occasions when they asked for building improvements.
“That’s normal in this day and age,” said Karen, “but the fact that they choose to do it during COVID closures? The senior centers are closed, and that’s usually where I’d get on a waitlist for subsidized housing, which is all I can afford.”
Ellis Act evictions are allowed during the pandemic
Most evictions are illegal during the pandemic. Oakland and Alameda County both have strict eviction moratoriums in place, allowing landlords to make tenants leave only when there’s an immediate health and safety risk. Ellis Act evictions are the other exception.
Tenant attorney Leah Simon-Weisberg of the Eviction Defense Collaborative said Ellis Act evictions are rare in Oakland but are sometimes used to convert a property into condos, which is easier to do when an entire building is vacant. Or, the apartments can be sold as tenancy-in-common units, similar to condos in that residents purchase their apartment and own it, rather than rent it. Simon-Weisberg said that sometimes when Ellis Act notices are served, the case ends in a settlement in which the tenants move out voluntarily, allowing the owner to continue renting the building.
“I have definitely seen more Ellis threats lately,” said Peter Selawsky, an attorney with the Eviction Defense Center. “But Ellis Act evictions are rare and move fairly slowly, so it’s hard for me to say for sure if there’s really more Ellis Act notices being served during shelter-in-place. It’s certainly a concern of mine going forward.”
Micaela Alvarez, managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, said the same thing: Ellis Act evictions are very unusual, and she’s heard of a handful of such notices doled out during the pandemic, more than is typical. The organization has seen a 33% increase in Ellis cases since the shelter-in-place order, but Alvarez said they’re infrequent enough that it’s hard to draw conclusions.
“We are also seeing landlords threatening the availability of this type of eviction when they pressure tenants to make a payment,” she told us.
Tension between renters and landlord over the years
Attorney Michael Sims represents Larry Raymond, the owner of the four-plex where Karen and her neighbors currently live. Sims said the Pasadena-based owner is not kicking the tenants out because he wants to raise the prices or sell the building.
Yes, the rents are low, Sims said, “but he doesn’t have a problem with that. He doesn’t need the money.” Sims said Raymond told the attorney he could speak to The Oaklandside on Raymond’s behalf.
The Alameda County Assessor’s Office told The Oaklandside that Raymond owns 10 buildings in the county. Sims said the landlord has never used the Ellis Act to evict tenants at any of his other properties, and is not evicting tenants anywhere else currently. The Rent Adjustment Program doesn’t keep comprehensive eviction records but staff said there was no immediate indication that Raymond had pursued other Ellis Act or “owner move-in” evictions in Oakland. They confirmed that Raymond has filed for evictions of all Genoa Street tenants.
What’s happening at that property, Sims said, is that the tenants have “just become really hostile and verbally abusive. They’ve been rude and insulting to the owner.”
Sims said Raymond suspects several of the residents are illegally subletting their units, and said they once locked the landlord out of the backyard. He said one resident “pushed” Raymond’s daughter, who oversaw the building until a management company, Selborne Properties, took it over a year or two ago. He noted that one tenant sent an email after the Ellis notice was delivered, referring to Sims as the landlord’s “crappy lawyer.”
Tenants said they never locked Raymond out and didn’t know about anyone pushing his daughter. They said they would sometimes ask for repairs for years before the issue got addressed. For a while, strangers were coming into their backyard and making tenants feel unsafe, Karen and Kross said.
“We asked to put a gate with a lock in, and [the owner] resisted,” said Karen. “They said, if you feel uncomfortable, just move. They started saying that stuff more often.”
Kross described several instances of verbal confrontation between her and her landlord’s daughter. As early as 2013, the Raymonds were admonishing the tenant for ignoring rules and being “aggressive,” which Kross disputed, according to letters reviewed by The Oaklandside.
In 2014, tenants suspected they were over-paying for their rent-controlled apartments and that the owners hadn’t given them proper notices about rent increases. All tenants in the building filed petitions with the city’s Rent Adjustment Program to determine if that was true, and a city hearing officer heard arguments from both sides. City records reviewed by The Oaklandside show that the officer found that the owners had, indeed, collected thousands of dollars more than they were allowed.
Karen said she’s taken care to keep her apartment in great shape since she arrived in 1991, and the tenants say they’ve all paid rent on time. Kross said she and her wife, who works at an architecture firm, can’t afford to pay much more in rent because Kross’s only income is less than $20,000 a year in disability payments.
Tenants said that contractors did significant work on the building’s deck last year, further suggesting to them that their landlord might want to recoup the costs in the form of higher rents down the road. Sims, Raymond’s lawyer, said he wasn’t aware of that project.
Sims said just a few of the tenants have caused issues, while others are “normal and kind.”
So why not evict the problem tenants instead of the whole building? The Ellis Act requires full-building move-outs, said Sims, and individual evictions can cost $20,000 apiece and involve a jury trial. But Raymond could easily lose more than $20,000 or $40,000 by taking the building off the rental market for just one year, making an Ellis Act eviction far more expensive than an eviction lawsuit.
Of course, under the current pandemic conditions, the Ellis Act is one of the only legal means through which landlords can evict tenants right now—though, as KQED and other outlets have reported, illegal evictions are happening during the pandemic, too.
Sims also said it’s generally difficult to evict renters. In Oakland, tenants are protected by the city’s Just Cause Ordinance, which requires that a landlord state a specific violation in order to carry out an eviction.
Sims insisted that Raymond is not planning to sell the property, saying he wants to leave it to his children, who could start renting it out again in several years.
“He’s fortunately in a position where he doesn’t have to continue renting it,” said the lawyer. “He’s going to explore his options.”
Asked whether tenants might have more difficulty relocating during the pandemic, Sims said, “That’s a reason to be nice to the landlord. But some people don’t see it that way.”
Tenants looking all over Oakland for legal help
Oakland requires landlords who carry out Ellis Act evictions to pay their displaced tenants relocation money in two installments. Raymond sent half of the relocation payment his tenants are entitled to (the other half of the $8,758 to $11,258 will come when they move out), but Kross said she’s not depositing the check because she intends to stay.
“I’m going to fight until I fall over dead,” she said. The group has launched a fundraiser for legal help and has phoned numerous tenant organizations looking for support.
Karen feels resigned to moving, but said she hasn’t been able to find free or affordable legal advice on how to even respond to the eviction notice. In some cases, law centers only handle illegal evictions, and some organizations are under-staffed during the pandemic.
“All I want is counsel on how to answer and a chance to get on a waiting list that’s not going to make me homeless for four years,” she said. “We’re not really fighting them. It’s more about what we can do to help ourselves. If it’s impossible I’ll just go back to Haiti. I grew up under a dictatorship, so I don’t expect very much.”
Karen never intended to leave the U.S. this year, and after this long. But she has family in Haiti and doesn’t see another option yet.
“I don’t want to go live in Concord or whatever,” she said. “At least I have the choice to go home.”