A building at 1921 International Blvd. was among several properties where the Mann family rented out hazardous, and often illegal, units, a judge found this month. Credit: Google Maps (screenshot)

A prominent Oakland landlord must pay the city of Oakland nearly $4 million after repeatedly renting illegal and hazardous units to tenants at several East Oakland properties, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled this month. 

Baljit Singh Mann and Surinder Mann, a married couple and members of an influential Oakland family that owns 130 commercial and residential properties, as well as a taxi company, had a “business practice renting dangerously converted spaces unfit for residential use to vulnerable tenants,” wrote Judge Brad Seligman in his Sept. 1 decision.

The city of Oakland sued the Manns and their real estate companies Dodg Corp. and SBMANN2 in 2019, alleging numerous violations of the city’s Tenant Protection Ordinance, which prohibits landlord harassment. The city also argued that the Manns were violating state nuisance laws by allowing their properties to fall into dangerous states of disrepair. The case centers on six properties in East Oakland, on Hegenberger Road, and Foothill and International boulevards. Most of the tenants at these properties were low-income immigrants, many of whom did not speak English, according to the city attorney’s office.

Court documents describe the Manns’ pattern of renting units at these properties that often lacked smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, had illegally installed water heaters—or no hot water at all—and hazardous electrical wiring. Some bedrooms were windowless and hallways were too narrow to allow for safe evacuation, and living quarters smelled moldy. Many of these units had been illegally converted from commercial or warehouse spaces into residential apartments, through what the judge described as a “deliberate evasion of the building permit process.” 

City inspectors issued numerous violation notices at these properties, but the mandatory repairs often went uncorrected. In some cases, the city ultimately deemed the spaces uninhabitable, causing tenants to have to relocate on short notice. The landlords did not pay those renters mandatory relocation fees, the judge wrote. 

Under Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance, or TPO, a court can require a landlord to pay up to $1,000 a day per violation of the policy. Seligman ordered the full penalty in some cases, and required the Manns to pay a lower fee in others, including at a property where some of the issues were caused by a tenant. According to the city attorney’s office, the penalties add up to $3.9 million. The city will also be entitled to additional attorney fees.

Under the judge’s ruling,  Baljit Singh Mann and Surinder Mann must stop all involvement with leasing at any of their Oakland properties for five years, and instead hire a “qualified” property management company. They must also fix remaining code violations, provide a list of all their residential units, and submit regular updates on their properties. 

“This is what justice for Oakland residents looks like,” said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, in a press release Monday. “Victory in this case means that tenants in Oakland do not have to choose between their fundamental rights and having a roof over their head at any cost…No longer will businesses like Dodg Corporation be able to run roughshod over the people relying on them for shelter, and no longer will landlords feel the same impunity to outright ignore their legal obligations under our local laws.”

An attorney for the Manns, Aaron Hancock, disputed the city’s claim of unequivocal victory in the case, saying the judge’s ruling “wasn’t entirely one-sided.” Referring to the renter who damaged her own unit and attempted to block inspectors from coming in, he said, “There was one tenant who barricaded us out and tried to put together a Ghostship.” 

But “the city sent a pretty strong message, and we’re listening to that message,” Hancock said. “The judge interpreted certain conditions as TPO violations. Where applicable, when there’s criticism, we’re listening.” 

The landlords could choose to appeal part or all of the decision in the coming days. “We’re weighing all our options,” said Hancock.

The Manns are also required to pay relocation fees to the tenants who needed to vacate the properties named in the case. Court documents show that the city asked the judge to require the creation of a “tenant restitution fund,” collecting money from the landlords to reimburse the tenants for rent they paid to live in hazardous units. The judge denied that request. 

His decision notes that many of the tenants paid “significant” rents—up to $2,500 a month—for the substandard and illegal units.

The Manns have owned several local real estate companies since 1980, and along with their sons Harmit and Dharminder Mann, have purchased dozens of commercial and residential properties throughout the city. County and city inspectors have documented safety hazards and code violations at numerous additional properties not named in the lawsuit, often prompted by tenant complaints. 

Over the years, the Mann family has received at least $250,000 in city grants to fix up their rental properties, from Oakland’s Tenant and Facade Improvement Program, according to reporting by the East Bay Express. In 2014, Dharminder Mann pleaded no contest to charges that he defrauded the city by misusing program funds intended for building repairs.

The Manns also own Friendly Cab, long Oakland’s largest taxicab company. 

One of the cab company employees lived in an illegally converted warehouse unit at 276 Hegenberger Rd., under a verbal lease agreement, according to the lawsuit. A building inspector described conditions at that rental property as “by far the worst that I have ever seen,” according to court records. 

Violations included a lack of heat and hot water, a leaky roof, a mold scent, dangerous electrical wiring, and more. Fire department inspectors noted in a 2018 walk-through that the property included live-work units that were unpermitted, had no windows or ventilation of any sort, no smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors, and no clear way for tenants to escape if there was a fire.

The Manns ignored requirements to address the violations, so the city deemed the property uninhabitable, court documents say. The tenants were forced to leave, and the Manns never paid their relocation costs. 

The landlords not only placed “their tenants in unsafe conditions, but they collected rent without providing even the most basic residential amenities, like heat and running water,” the judge wrote.

At another set of properties, 1921 and 1931 International Blvd., city emergency responders found 10 households living in illegal units behind a storefront. The downstairs part of one of the properties had been “red-tagged,” a designation given to hazardous buildings deemed unsafe to even enter. 

During the 13-day trial for the lawsuit, the Manns claimed someone else was the landlord of those properties, but the judge found evidence that the owners not only knew the units were being rented but had built the apartments themselves. There were records that the Manns’ property manager, Michael Trang, bought several fridges and stoves for the building even though the upstairs, legal, units already had those appliances. There were code violations in those apartments too, including missing smoke detectors and an unapproved water heater, court records say. The city ultimately ordered units at both properties to be vacated.

Hancock, the lawyer for the Manns, said his clients will continue operating their rental businesses in Oakland. 

“There are no plans to pick up the basketball and go home,” he said. “Dodg Corp. will continue to offer housing, and Section 8 housing, to residents of the East Bay.” 

The city attorney’s office has gone after numerous other landlords for violating the TPO, including several during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the office. The ordinance was passed in 2014, and permits the city and tenants to sue property owners over a wide range behavior considered “harassment.” The policy was updated in 2020, to expand the list of illegal landlord actions, including shutting off utilities, threatening to report a renter’s immigration status, and filming inside a resident’s home without their permission. 

“For some abusive landlords, neither the 2014 TPO nor its recent amendments were enough to stop their illegal activities,” the city attorney’s office said in its press release.

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.