Said Koulougli, who lives on E. 18th Street, is among 40 renters suing their landlords over alleged harassment, neglect, and utility overcharges. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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Michael Holm has lived in the same downtown Oakland apartment for 15 years, but their daily life got considerably worse after The Mosser Company bought the Jackson Street building in 2016. 

“The first thing they did was demolish all these apartments, down to the studs,” said Holm. For the next few years, Holm and other renters say, tenants were subjected to “perpetual, non-stop construction,” with large work crews frequently blocking hallways, blasting music, and filling the property with fumes from the building materials. City records show Mosser took out permits for at least 14 apartment remodels in the 24-unit building between 2016 and 2020. 

“It was absolute chaos,” said Holm, who has COPD, a lung disease that results in inflamed and blocked airways. Holm said their condition was exacerbated by the debris and dust from the construction. “I was getting sicker and sicker.”

Holm is one of about 40 tenants who filed five lawsuits this week in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging that Mosser and companies related to the Dallas-based Invesco, which purchased eight of Mosser’s Oakland buildings in 2020, made living conditions inhospitable in rent-controlled Oakland properties. The tenants are represented by attorney Robert Salinas and ACCE, a renter advocacy nonprofit. 

The lawsuits claim the landlords broke Oakland rental laws by overcharging tenants for utilities, neglecting necessary repairs, and for allowing hazards like mold and pests to fester. The landlords are also accused of unlawfully entering renters’ apartments, failing to fix locks and elevators, conducting perpetual construction, and more. 

Because many of the tenants pay far below average rents for their neighborhoods—Holm pays $745 a month—ACCE is arguing that Mosser and its affiliates intentionally created these conditions to try to push tenants out. Under California law, rents can be reset at market-rate when a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit. Holm said the renovated units went for two or three times what Holm pays.

Renters in this Jackson Street building say Mosser conducted “non-stop construction” on the apartments for years. Credit: Amir Aziz

“You’re not a person to them. You’re a portfolio asset,” said Holm, speaking to The Oaklandside on the steps of the René C. Davidson Courthouse on Wednesday morning, after a press conference organized by ACCE.

Mosser did not respond to multiple calls and emails from The Oaklandside on Wednesday. According to the company’s website, Mosser currently owns 12 Oakland properties, along with buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mosser sold eight other Oakland buildings to real estate investor Invesco in late 2020, at the time advertising to potential buyers the possibility of “tremendous future income growth” at the properties due to the “natural rollover” of tenancies. 

A spokesperson for Oak9, a company affiliated with Invesco that’s named in some of the lawsuits, sent a statement in response to The Oaklandside’s request for comment.

“We are in receipt of the complaints and are reviewing them. While we cannot comment on active litigation directly, we take the health, safety and comfort of our tenants extremely seriously,” said spokesperson Tracy Craig.

Another tenant present at the courthouse gathering, Said Koulougli, described the stress his disabled wife experienced after Mosser bought their E. 18th Street building. Koulougli’s wife has limited mobility so she gets around Oakland using an electric scooter, which she leaves in the building’s garage, in a parking space she borrows from a neighbor. 

According to one of the lawsuits, Mosser at one point warned tenants that all trash would be removed from the garage. In the clean-up process, the company trashed the parked scooter as well as walkers left in the same place. When Koulougli contacted a manager to say his wife’s mobility devices were missing, he was sent an email that said, “Hi Said, I’m sorry but any trash left in garage was thrown in dumpsters. Warm Regards,” according to the lawsuit. The couple had to buy a new scooter, but Koulougli’s wife missed medical appointments in the meantime, he said. The elevator in the building is often broken as well, he said.

According to the lawsuit, Mosser also neglected to replace vandalized mailboxes in the same building for months, forcing tenants to pick up mail from the downtown Oakland post office, until the postal service threatened to stop holding it for them. 

Fairly new Oakland law lets renters sue

One of the lawsuits is a class-action case alleging that Mosser and Invesco illegally charged tenants for utilities.

Oakland’s rent-control regulations say a landlord can’t split up a building’s utility bill between individual units. The landlord must install individual meters, so renters are able to pay for only the water and electricity their household—not their neighbors’—uses each month. “If this is too expensive,” the regulations say, “then the property owner should pay the utility bill himself/herself and build the cost into the rent.”

Instead of following this law, attorneys allege Mosser and its affiliates use third-party companies that illegally divide water, sewage, and trash collection costs among tenants in buildings without individual meters. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that these companies use a formula that divides the utility costs unevenly and “erratically,” inexplicably charging some renters more than others who live in similar units. These companies also charge “service fees” to the renters.

Razika Tougaua, Hamar Lemya, and Zakiaha Choud (left to right) all immigrated to the U.S. from Algeria and met each other while living in the same E. 18th Street building. Now, they’re speaking out against what they say has been persistent neglect from landlord Mosser. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

In some cases Mosser did install individual electricity meters, requiring tenants—who did not have to pay for utilities under their agreements with their previous landlord—to set up PG&E accounts and begin paying the bills. ACCE lawyers say this constituted an illegal increase in rent and change to a lease. When tenants didn’t open a PG&E account, the landlord sent threatening letters, according to the lawsuit. 

Hamar Lemya, an E. 18th Street tenant, told The Oaklandside she came home from picking up her newborn baby’s birth certificate one day to find her electricity shut off. Lemya and two other renters in her building also said their water had been shut off hours before they showed up to the courthouse press conference.

“We don’t have a choice, that’s why we stay there,” said tenant Razika Tougaua, who also lives in the E. 18th Street property. “We’re all low-income.”

The five lawsuits ask the landlord companies to stop all practices that violate Oakland’s rent-control rules and Tenant Protection Ordinance, and to pay them damages. The TPO was passed in 2014 and updated last year, and gives Oakland renters the ability to take their landlords to court for harassment.

“The TPO is a wonderful piece of legislation, but it has to be enforced,” said Ethan Silverstein, ACCE lawyer. The ordinance enables tenants to receive $1,000 per day of each violation, and “we intend to use that to the maximum extent possible,” Silverstein said. 

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.