Erica Danger and "Cat Man" Adam Myatt live in one of the 12 Oakland buildings that received an Ellis Act eviction notice last year. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Adam Myatt is the neighborhood cat rescuer. His work fostering strays, co-founding Oakland’s cat café, and helping local felines feel good at his “catnip dispensary” has earned Myatt the nickname “Cat Man of West Oakland.” 

But after years of giving countless kitties a home, he stands to lose his own.

Myatt, who’s lived in his West Oakland duplex apartment for 10 years, is among the small number of Oakland tenants being told to leave their homes during the pandemic under a rare exception to the local and state eviction bans.

Soon after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Oakland, the city and Alameda County passed what are considered two of the most sweeping eviction moratoriums in the country. But there are some instances when landlords can still evict tenants, including if they invoke a 1986 California law called the Ellis Act. 

Under the Ellis Act, which Myatt’s landlord is using, property owners can evict tenants if they take an entire building off the rental market altogether—turning it into condos, moving in themselves, or leaving it vacant. 

Use of the Ellis Act is rare in Oakland because it comes with strict rules for landlords, who have to pay tenants relocation fees and who can’t rent the units out for another decade unless they offer them first to the people they evicted. 

In December, the Oakland City Council joined a growing call to reform or repeal the Ellis Act, saying it endangers vulnerable renters. Because it’s a state law, local politicians don’t have much authority to prevent those evictions themselves. 

But any challenge to the Ellis Act would face resistance from local property owners, who say their rights have already been heavily curtailed under Oakland’s many tenant-protection laws—and that like anyone else, they deserve to be able to go out of business when they want to. 

The eviction would take a low-rent unit off the market

“Cat Man” Myatt moved into his Victorian duplex unit almost a decade ago. At the time the building was owned by a corporate landlord who eventually sold it in 2018 to a woman named Kathryn Swearingen. Swearingen evicted the upstairs neighbors so she could move in herself, according to Myatt. She now lives there with two roommates.

Myatt’s girlfriend, Erica Danger, moved into his unit over the summer, and because the apartment is rent-controlled and Myatt’s been there for so long, they pay far below the market rate for a two-bedroom they share with four cats: $1,335 instead of the Oakland average that hovers around $2,500. Myatt suspects the low rent might be part of why the landlord wants them out, but said Swearingen told him she’s evicting them so her partner can move into their unit. 

Myatt also described recent conflicts with his landlord. When Swearingen began construction work on the property over the summer, Myatt asked repeatedly to see her building permits and eventually filed a complaint with the city, he said. They also argued about when Danger could move in.

Neither Swearingen nor her lawyer responded to requests for interviews.

Myatt said Swearingen eventually met with him and Danger and offered them money to move out. They negotiated with their landlord, but couldn’t come close to agreeing on a relocation fee. 

In October, Myatt received the first Ellis Act eviction notice.

To him, it felt like “the Ellis Act is the only way they could get us out.” Myatt, who’s cobbled together an income from his various cat-related pursuits while Danger’s photography business has been slowed by the pandemic, said it was a stressful time to consider looking for a new, inevitably more expensive, place.

“We’re two low-income earners, and we’re in the middle of a global and local and national crisis,” Myatt said. “My house is the only thing that is stable in life, essentially, right now, and for them to be actively trying to take it away is mind-boggling. We’re not saying we want to live here forever, but now is not a great time to move.” The tenants have been paying rent on time throughout the pandemic, he said.

Bud, who’s blind, is one of four cats who share the West Oakland apartment with their owners. Credit: Amir Aziz

As Myatt looked over the eviction paperwork, though, he noticed that Swearingen’s roommates weren’t listed as tenants, even though the Ellis Act requires the eviction of the entire building. He said that after he asked about the omission, Swearingen rescinded the Ellis Act notice.

Right before Thanksgiving, the renters got the second notice. This one names Swearingen’s roommates as “non-tenant occupants,” saying they don’t pay rent. The eviction notice says it goes into effect Dec. 3, so the downstairs renters have to leave by early April, after a required 120-day period. Myatt said he requested an extension based on a disability he has, and is waiting to hear the landlord’s response.

“This so fucking incredibly nerve-wracking,” said Myatt, who’s enlisted the Eviction Defense Center to help with his case.

To him, the eviction and removal of two rent-controlled units is a piece of the larger story of his neighborhood, which has undergone immense change since he arrived a decade ago. Myatt, who’s white, considers himself part of the second of around four “waves of gentrification” he’s tracked as the demographics in the area have shifted with rising rents: “I’ve seen my entire block flip.”

City Council wants to repeal Ellis Act, but landlords say it’s a necessary, last resort

Ellis Act evictions are rare in Oakland and have not increased or decreased during the pandemic. According to L. Autumn King, a spokesperson for the city, there were 12 notices served in 2019 and 12 in 2020. But there have been recent cases—including one at a North Oakland fourplex over the summer—and tenant lawyers say they’ve seen an uptick in threats to “Ellis” buildings.

In December, the City Council passed a resolution calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend the Ellis Act during the COVID-19 crisis as a public health measure, and asking the state legislature to repeal the law altogether.

Councilmember Dan Kalb, who co-sponsored the resolution, said at the meeting that cities like Oakland should be able to “decide for themselves how best to keep tenants in their homes.”

Wayne Rowland, board president of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, said the effort is misguided.

“The Ellis Act is just the housing version of the right to go out of business,” he told The Oaklandside. “Most businesses have that; if you want to close down your store, you can close down your store.”

Rowland said the council should look at why property owners resort to using the Ellis Act in the first place. 

“Why are people fleeing from the rental business?” he said. “ It’s not a means of evicting people for the purpose of evicting people. For people who have not been receiving rent on their property since March…they’re not going to just pay for the privilege of being in the business—they have to operate in an economic way. I think the council should spend some time helping renters and property owners alike.”

Myatt sees both his arrival to, and potential departure from, West Oakland as symptoms of the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood. Credit: Pete Rosos

Janani Ramachandran, an Oakland tenant advocate, said there are few ways to ensure that a landlord is truly “going out of business,” however.

“It’s really hard to prove if a landlord is fraudulently saying they’ll convert to condos, but they’re actually going to rent it out to a high-paying tenant,” she said. There’s no built-in check-up on buildings five or six years later.

“A tenant doesn’t have the resources to launch an affirmative lawsuit against a landlord,” Ramachandran said. “This is a really hard situation for tenants because there’s virtually no defense to the Ellis Act.”

Ramachandran is part of a statewide campaign to reel back the Ellis Act by placing a moratorium on the law until 90 days after the state eviction moratorium expires, and to instate a five-year holding period before a new owner is allowed to Ellis a building.

“You see a lot of corporate landlords come in and buy property, then flip it within the year,” she said. “These kind of market speculators would be less interested in buying” a building if they couldn’t convert it to condos or overhaul the tenants immediately.

She said the campaign is open to the idea of an exemption for small landlords.

Myatt said he does “try to look at it in the mortgage owner or homeowner’s shoes.”

“Yeah, of course you want to be making as much money as you can and getting your investment back,” he said. “But this is people’s livelihoods. In general I think the Ellis Act is sketchy at best. Not everyone is going to try to educate themselves about it as much as we have.” 

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.