The Grand Avenue Business District. October 14, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

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The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area is hosting a series of lease negotiation webinars throughout November and December for economically-stressed small business tenants during the pandemic. The webinars, which are also being posted on LCCRSF’s youtube channel for those who can’t attend the online workshops, are being held in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Cantonese. Oakland small businesses can also apply online for a one-hour individual consultation or for longer-term lease negotiation assistance with LCCRSF.

The assistance is being paid for with funds from the CARES Act, the federal government’s economic aid program for states and local governments during COVID-19. Oakland received over $36.9 million in CARES Act funding from the State of California, and $150,000 of that was granted by the city to LCCRSF.

Other local organizations including The Unity Council and the Oakland Chinatown and Vietnamese chambers of commerce are partnering with LCCRSF to help get the word out to local small business tenants and translate applications submitted in languages other than English.

According to Tobias Damm-Luhr, LCCRSF staff attorney, paying the rent is a big concern for many of the city’s small businesses impacted by the pandemic. While some have had amicable lease negotiations with their landlords, he said, that’s not often the case. “Small business owners sometimes tell us that they’ve been trying to contact their landlord without any response,” Damm-Luhr told The Oaklandside. “They’re trying to ask for deferral of some of the rent, or forgiveness, and some landlords refuse to come to the table.”

During the two webinars that have already taken place, Damm-Luhr said business tenants have been asking questions about their rights and what types of things they should be aware of when entering into negotiations with landlords.

“One of the main tips we have is, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, you have the upper hand because the eviction moratorium,” Damm-Luhr said, referring to city and county laws protecting renters, including small business tenants, from being evicted for not paying rent during the pandemic.

For immigrant small business owners, said Damm-Luhr, language barriers and technology present additional challenges. And some small business tenants have also expressed fear about their landlords finding out they’ve sought legal advice for lease negotiations. “Neither we or someone working for us will contact someone’s landlord unless they ask us to,” assured Damm-Luhr.

The next webinar, which is in Spanish, will take place Thursday, October 29. LCCRSF’s final webinar is currently scheduled to take place on December 16. Interested small business tenants can find a webinar in their language and register here.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.