An apartment building in the Jack London Square district. June 16, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

A group of local landlords filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday seeking to overturn Oakland and Alameda County’s current eviction bans, which were triggered by the start of the pandemic.

“Our coalition of mom-and-pop property owners filed this lawsuit as a last resort option to ensure they don’t end up in financial ruin and to regain control of the properties they worked so hard for to purchase,” said Joe Arellano, spokesperson for the Oakland-based nonprofit Housing Providers of America. “Small mom-and-pop property owners have endured two years of not receiving rental payments. As a result, they are now on the brink of foreclosure and bankruptcy.”

The action came after the landlords’ attorney, Andrew Zacks, sent a letter to the Oakland City Council and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in January warning the legal challenge was coming. The suit is part of a broader push by property owners’ groups across the state to end local eviction bans.

Oakland’s moratorium went into effect on March 27, 2020, banning most evictions shortly after the local COVID-19 lockdown began. The county followed on April 21 by passing its own moratorium. 

Councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas and Dan Kalb, and City Attorney Barbara Parker, who sponsored the city’s moratorium, argued it was necessary to prevent renters from being displaced by the economic effects of the pandemic, including massive job and income losses. By keeping people in their homes, eviction moratoriums were intended to facilitate sheltering in place and other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed almost one million Americans, including 1,758 in Alameda County.

Kalb said he couldn’t speak to the specifics of the lawsuit but he told The Oaklandside he’s glad the city put a moratorium in place. “Without the protections, we could have seen massive evictions in Oakland,” he said. “That helps nobody. We didn’t want to add to the homeless population because people were thrown out of their homes right in the midst of a serious pandemic.”

Oakland’s moratorium will expire only after the City Council declares an end to the local COVID-19 emergency. The same is true for the county’s eviction ban. That is, unless the courts intervene.

Landlords say the moratoriums violate their property rights and have gone on too long

The landlords suing Oakland and Alameda County argue that moratoriums trample their constitutional rights and have caused them financial stress, and in some cases even harmed their health.

In their lawsuit, they say the nearly two-year-old local bans on evicting tenants for almost any reason are violations of the Fifth Amendment and California’s eminent domain law, because they amount to confiscation of their property by the government without fair compensation. By disallowing the removal of tenants who don’t pay rent, or for other reasons, “the Moratoriums eliminate renters’ rent obligations and sanction renters’ trespassing on Plaintiffs’ properties,” the complaint says.

According to the lawsuit, Oakland landlord John Williams, one of the plaintiffs, stopped receiving $1,500 in monthly rent from a tenant in a West Oakland duplex he owns after the moratoriums were approved. Williams had trouble paying his mortgage, and according to the lawsuit, he unsuccessfully tried to sell the building. He moved into the duplex’s upper unit because of his own financial difficulties. 

Last October, Williams was “so riddled with stress caused by his non-paying renter and the very real possibility of losing 1109 32nd Street to foreclosure, he was hospitalized and, to date, remains disabled as a result.”

Four other small landlords, including two Oakland property owners, and Housing Providers of America joined Williams in filing the lawsuit.

According to records on file with the Secretary of State, Housing Providers of America was incorporated in January by John Protopappas, a local developer with Madison Park Financial, which owns numerous rental properties in Oakland. Protopappas has also contributed over $20,000 to City Council and mayoral candidates over the past decade, and was fundraising chair for Mayor Libby Schaaf’s 2014 campaign. According to an NBC Bay Area report last year, Madison Park Financial sent 150 eviction notices to renters in its buildings during the pandemic, even though the moratorium was in place.

“Eviction protections are still necessary because so many people still haven’t been able to get back to work, there’s not really adequate childcare centers, and so many things that are needed for working people to get back on their feet and pay their rent aren’t back in place yet.”

Tenants’ rights attorney Leah Simon-Weisberg

The local landlords also argue in their lawsuit that the ongoing city and county eviction bans run afoul of their constitutional due process rights because “there is no justification for such extreme measures” by local governments. “The Bay Area has seen significant improvement in circumstances relating to the pandemic since March of 2020, has a high rate of vaccinations, and federal and state officials have recognized that Covid-19 is either in, or moving to, an endemic stage,” they argue. 

Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney and the legal director of the statewide tenants’ rights group ACCE Institute, said she thinks these legal arguments will be rejected.

“Eviction protections are still necessary because so many people still haven’t been able to get back to work, there’s not really adequate childcare centers, and so many things that are needed for working people to get back on their feet and pay their rent aren’t back in place yet.”

Simon-Weisberg said landlords are trying to portray the eviction moratoriums as unreasonable, but, she notes, the pandemic is a once-in-a-century event that called for extraordinary measures to keep people safe in their homes.

“These special powers are intended for these exact situations,” she said about eviction bans. “Courts have consistently said you can do this in California.”

One thing tenants and landlords have agreed on is that government assistance to help pay back rent hasn’t gone far enough. Oakland and Alameda County distribute renter relief funds that help landlords make up their unpaid rent while keeping tenants housed. 

Tenants have criticized these programs because they’re difficult to apply to and slow to disperse funds. The new landlord lawsuit points out that both the city and county websites for these programs state that they’ve received too many applications or don’t have enough funds to fulfill every request.

Property owners have sued across California to try to end the eviction moratoriums

The newly filed lawsuit is one of many legal actions landlords are pursuing to try to get rid of eviction moratoriums up and down the state.

The Apartment Association of Los Angeles County filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Los Angeles in 2020, similarly arguing Los Angeles’ eviction moratorium ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution, including the Contract Clause, which says states and local governments can’t pass laws preventing people from entering into and enforcing legally binding contracts, including rental agreements for apartments. 

In November 2020, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected a request by the landlord group for a preliminary injunction that would overturn the eviction moratorium. The judge reasoned that the need of cities and counties to respond to the pandemic, including by temporarily limiting evictions, outweighed the possible harms to landlords.

The apartment association appealed the decision, but last August a panel of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges decided Los Angeles’ eviction moratorium should stay in place. The landlord group has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Geoffrey Palmer, a Southern California landlord whose companies control tens of thousands of apartments across Los Angeles County, filed another lawsuit in August 2021. Like the Oakland landlords’ lawsuit, Palmer is arguing that Los Angeles’ eviction moratorium violates the Fifth Amendment and California’s eminent domain laws. He’s seeking $100 million in compensation.

Another similar lawsuit filed by a property owner in February 2021 sought to overturn Los Angeles’ eviction moratorium on commercial properties. Oakland also approved a ban on commercial evictions, but this expired in September 2021.

San Diego landlords are also trying to overturn the eviction moratorium in their county. A federal judge denied their request to temporarily overturn the eviction ban. An appeals court did not rule on the case, deferring to another pending lawsuit instead. San Diego’s County Board of Supervisors subsequently allowed their eviction moratorium to expire last year.

Correction: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit neither upheld nor rejected the district court decision regarding the San Diego lawsuit. Instead, the court deferred to another pending case regarding eviction moratoriums.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.