More than 20 Fruitvale tenants have been on rent strike for a year, protesting living conditions in this building. Now they're suing their landlord. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Angelica Rivas turns on her shower, only cold water comes out. 

“I have to heat up hot water in the kitchen and take it to the bathroom,” Rivas said Monday morning at a press conference, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “I’ve arrived late to work, and my children have arrived late to school.” 

Rivas is one of 21 Fruitvale tenants (plus five children) who are banding together to sue their landlord over what they allege are longstanding habitability and safety issues in their six-unit building. According to their lawsuit, the building is filled with mold, rats, sewage problems, leaky roofs, broken stoves and heaters, missing smoke alarms, and more. 

All the tenants at 1821 28th Ave. have been on rent strike since the beginning of the pandemic over conditions in their building. On Monday, they filed a lawsuit against the company that owns the property, BYLD 2 LLC, and the company’s owner, Michael You, who bought the 28th Avenue building in 2018.

“These tenants are not asking for luxuries. They’re asking for the most basic things,” said Gabriela Vivas, an organizer with ACCE, a renter advocacy group representing the Fruitvale tenants in the case, along with civil rights law firm Public Advocates and attorney David Levin.

The lawsuit alleges that You and BYLD 2 violated numerous local and state laws around Oakland tenant protections, landlord harassment, health and safety requirements, rent increases, and more. The tenants are asking for immediate repairs and financial damages—an amount that could end up being “at least several hundred thousand dollars,” said Levin at Monday’s press conference, which took place virtually on Zoom.

You has not responded to a request for comment sent Monday morning. We will update this story if we receive a response. You’s company is located in Cupertino and has a business address in Los Altos, according to state records.

Most of the tenants at 1821 28th Ave. have lived in the building for a decade, and some much longer, and most are monolingual Spanish-speakers. The apartments are rent-controlled and because the tenants have lived there for so long, they pay far below market-rate for their two-bedroom units, between $1,000 to $1,500 a month.

Angelica Rivas spoke at a press conference Monday about issues with cold water, rats, and cockroaches in her apartment. Credit: Zoom

According to the lawsuit, the renters told You about the issues in their building when he bought it in 2018. He promised to fix the problems, but made almost no repairs, lawyers claim. In some cases, they allege that You said he’d only make fixes if the tenants agreed to pay higher rent, in violation of Oakland’s housing laws. The lawsuit also says You sent numerous inspectors and workers, unannounced, to tenants’ apartments after they sent a demand letter in December, but those visits did not result in repairs.

According to lawyers, tenants previously complained to the city of Oakland Code Enforcement, which issued violation notices requiring the landlord to make repairs. Neither ACCE nor the city have provided copies of the notices in response to The Oaklandside’s request. But the city’s online code enforcement database shows six cases opened for the building since March 2019, including complaints about mold, plumbing issues, weeds, trash, debris, and vermin. One complaint about trash dumping is marked as addressed.

In 2018, the owner applied for a building permit to replace the building’s sewer lateral pipes that empty into the city’s sewer main, according to city records. He also received a permit in February to fix all six water heaters.

Lawyers for the tenants accuse You of intentionally neglecting to make the building livable, in an attempt to force the renters out so he can raise the rents or flip the property. 

“There are landlords for whom that behavior is their regular business model,” said Jackie Zaneri, an attorney with ACCE. “Sometimes this behavior is effective, and tenants who’ve lived in their homes for decades feel they have no alternative but to move out.”

According to the assessor’s office, the only other properties owned by BYLD 2 in Alameda County are two condos in an Oakland hills building. However, state and county records show that Michael You owns at least two other real estate companies, BYLD Holdings LLC and MVHS 28 LLC, too. BYLD Holdings owns two neighboring apartment buildings on High Street in Oakland, and sold a third property on E. 22nd Street in 2019, according to the assessor’s office. MVHS 28 owns one property in downtown Oakland. All of his companies were incorporated within the past few years.

At the press conference, two of the renters said they and their children want to live somewhere safer, but they can’t find anywhere else affordable in Oakland. 

Evelyn Rivas said her daughter can’t look at a plastic toy mouse without getting scared, since she’s so “traumatized” from the rodents that frequent their building. But Rivas said she believes her family and the other Fruitvale tenants should be able to stay in the building, in better conditions. 

“It’s so important for everyone to know their rights,” she said, speaking in Spanish through the interpreter. “We feel united in our building.” 

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 grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.