Carroll Fife appears to have unseated District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, joining a group of successful candidates who made tenant issues a notable part of their platforms. Credit: Courtesy Carroll Fife

When The Oaklandside asked local voters what mattered to them this election, one theme resounded across the city: housing.

Now, with most ballots counted, several candidates who made tenants’ rights a centerpiece of their campaigns are maintaining comfortable leads. And if the current results hold up, it raises the question of what sort of policies a more renter-friendly City Council could pursue. 

Nowhere was housing a more prominent campaign topic than in District 3, which encompasses West Oakland, downtown, and Jack London. There, candidate Carroll Fife, an activist whose role in the Moms 4 Housing occupation of a vacant, investor-owned house last year attracted international media attention, appears to have unseated two-term incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney. 

In an interview Monday, shortly after announcing her apparent victory, Fife said she believes tenants’ rights and housing policy were deciding factors in elections across the Bay Area. “With so many people in precarious positions because of COVID-19, they’re really looking to local government for help,” she said.

While Fife has called for the “decommodification of housing,” McElhaney has been vocal, in Oaklandside interviews and elsewhere, about her skepticism toward rent control and other tenant protections as ways to prevent gentrification and displacement. 

McElhaney, who said Monday that she will concede the race, is part of the self-titled Equity Caucus, a group of four councilmembers who have voted as a block recently, and who typically align with Mayor Libby Schaaf, who can break City Council tie votes. McElhaney’s loss means this group, which includes retiring District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid, could be replaced by a new majority that includes Fife and fellow renter advocates Dan Kalb and Rebecca Kaplan, who are currently leading in the District 1 and at-large races. McElhaney did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

Renters’ rights may have played a role in other city races, too. City Attorney Barbara Parker, likely headed toward a landslide reelection with 80% of the vote so far, co-wrote the Tenant Protection Ordinance with Kalb in 2014, as well as recent updates strengthening the scope of that law. Over the years, Parker’s office has sued multiple landlords for violating the ordinance and harassing tenants. Parker ran ads portraying her as “Oakland’s defender” against “real estate speculators who would buy our city,” and drew attention to realtor groups that spent $105,000 on ads supporting her opponent, Eli Ferran. 

Parker declined an interview request until the election results are final. But she previously told The Oaklandside that she’s passionate about using her post to defend renters against landlord harassment.

What might a “pro-renter majority” on City Council try to accomplish?

Wayne Rowland, the president of the board of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord advocacy group, said that, from the rental-property owner’s vantage point, tenant protections could hardly be any stronger in Oakland. 

But District 1 incumbent Dan Kalb said he sees plenty more opportunities to “reduce displacement of existing residents,” making housing more affordable and accessible to both renters and homeowners. If officially reelected, the councilmember wants to require new complexes to include more affordable units, collect more impact fees from developers that can be used to fund affordable housing projects, create more land-trust-style cooperatively owned housing, and better support first-time homebuyers.

Kalb is currently on track to win reelection. With Kalb maintaining his 54% lead as of the last count on Sunday, it’s unlikely this race will end in a runoff with second-place candidate Steph Walton. (Shortly after publication, Walton emailed The Oaklandside to say she plans to concede the election.) 

Dan Kalb has maintained a solid lead in the District 1 City Council race. He has a record of writing tenant-protection policies. Credit: Julie Gipple/Courtesy Kalb

While Walton’s views don’t stray far from Kalb’s on housing, the incumbent has a history of writing laws that expand renters’ rights, like Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance and restrictions on condo conversions. Walton received more financial support from people in the real estate industry, which her opponents pointed to as evidence that real estate interests were trying to unseat Kalb.

Fife said Monday she also supports requiring more affordable apartments in new buildings, and passing policies to “support the many households on rent strikes right now, and landlords who are impacted by tenants not paying rent.”

Fife has been blunt throughout her campaign about her positions on polarizing housing questions and what sorts of policies she’d pursue if elected, calling for an end to real estate speculation. She is the Oakland director for the nonprofit ACCE, which helped draft the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, and she went through what she described as an illegal eviction herself years ago.

Could incumbency have played a bigger role than housing?

Kalb cautioned that it’s impossible to definitively link election results to a single area of policy, including renters’ rights. “I don’t have any exit polling,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “But you see on social media—you get a sense that’s a main issue. People are already saying, well now we have a council that is more inclined to be supportive of tenants, more so than ever before. There’s a pretty solid pro-renter majority.” 

Rowland, the East Bay Rental Housing Association board president, said the sheer power of incumbency may have played a deciding factor in this year’s elections. 

“Regardless of how people think of incumbents,” Rowland said, “they do have a pretty good advantage of being reelected.” According to Rowland, “Dan Kalb had a chance to serve constituents for a long time, and it may not be a function of a particular issue,” but rather his familiarity among many voters. 

Rowland’s group did not make endorsements this year, but its political action committee spent on advertising opposing Kaplan and supporting her opponent in the at-large race, Derreck Johnson.

There are other signs incumbency could have been a factor: while Fife’s upset has attracted major attention, hers is the only race in which an incumbent who ran for reelection isn’t leading so far.

Oakland supports tenant protections while California rejects them

Oakland has a rent control policy placing restrictions on rent hikes in many buildings. But a state law exempts a large portion of the city’s housing stock from coming under rent control. Credit: Pete Rosos

Ultimately, the city of Oakland can only do so much to strengthen renters’ rights, regardless of who’s on the council.

In California, a 1995 law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act strictly limits what sort of housing local governments can place under rent control. Single-family homes and any buildings constructed after the law was passed aren’t subject to local rent control laws, and when tenants move out of rent-controlled units, landlords can set any new starting price.

“We’re not allowed to protect some of our renters,” said Kalb, “even if other renters half a block away have protections.” 

California voters just rejected an opportunity to repeal Costa Hawkins. Proposition 21, which would have permitted rent control on most buildings over 15 years old, is losing by 60% with most votes counted. In Alameda County, where multiple cities have rent control policies, more people voted for Proposition 21, although it’s still currently losing here by one point. 

To Rowland, the statewide and county numbers are an indication that voters may not, in fact, be overwhelmingly supportive of tenant protections. 

Kalb, an active supporter of Proposition 21, had a different take: “Some of those commercials were B.S., just outright frickin’ lies,” he said, referring to the campaign against it. 

Fife said she’d like to see the Oakland City Council play a role in advocating for the repeal of Costa Hawkins. She also hopes Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, who “should understand the housing crisis” in her native California, might help steer more federal funding for housing to cities like Oakland. 

James Vann, a renter advocate with the Oakland Tenants Union, said the city might be on a different path than the rest of the county and state. 

“Oakland has seemed to turn a corner—not on homelessness yet, but on housing issues, tenant protections, and advances in policing,” he said. “The community generally seems to support those things, and they weighed heavily” on voters’ minds.

For Vann, the real test of the new council will be its approach to homelessness. The entire current City Council, including Kalb and McElhaney, just passed a controversial “encampment management policy” spelling out where homeless camps can exist, and when the city can clean or close them. Homeless advocates protested the vote, saying the policy is tantamount to punishing unhoused people for their economic circumstances. Supporters of the policy say it would improve conditions on the streets in Oakland.

“There’s nothing in it that speaks to the needs of the homeless community,” said Vann, who was among the dozens of people who tried to stop the council from passing the policy. “We’re going to be looking at how to amend it.”

The county registrar provides daily election result updates in the afternoon, which we post here.

This story was updated after publication.

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.