A majority of Oakland residents are renters. Credit: Amir Aziz

A federal judge has denied an initial attempt by landlords to strike down Oakland and Alameda County’s eviction moratoriums, meaning the bans on removing tenants from their housing will remain in effect while a court case considering the policies’ constitutionality continues. 

Judge Laurel Beeler’s order, issued Tuesday evening, is a significant step in a lawsuit filed by a group of rental property owners in March. The landlords argue that the city and county COVID-19 eviction bans, in place since March 2020, constitute an illegal “taking” of private property by the government and violate state law.

Beeler disagreed that the city and county are taking landlords’ property, writing in her 40-page order that the moratoriums “are temporary…do not absolve renters of their obligation to pay rent, and include exceptions allowing the landlords to leave the rental business.”

Oakland and Alameda County had the authority under state law to pass local eviction moratorium ordinances that went further than California’s statewide tenant protections, she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented spike in unemployment and other economic disruptions that threatened to cause thousands of people to become homeless. Oakland’s eviction moratorium, authored by councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas and Dan Kalb with City Attorney Barbara Parker, was designed to “preserve and increase housing security for Oakland residents,” according to the legislation.

Both the city and county ordinances require tenants to continue paying rent but prohibit landlords from kicking them out if they miss payments. Evictions are not allowed in almost all cases, with some exemptions for direct safety threats posed by tenants, or if the landlord wants to take the building off the rental market.

Beeler’s order is in response to a court hearing in late September, where lawyers for the landlord group sought “summary judgment,” asking the judge to declare the moratoriums unconstitutional without having to proceed to trial. If Beeler had ruled in their favor, the city and county would have been forced to end the moratoriums immediately, but her order denies summary judgment, so the case will continue working its way through court, likely going to trial next year.

The landlord group failed to “show that the ordinances were an unreasonable response to a legitimate public problem,” Beeler wrote. 

Andrew Zacks, a lawyer for the property owners, told The Oaklandside that “plaintiffs respectfully disagree with Judge Beeler’s conclusions and intend to pursue all available appellate remedies.” 

In a statement, Parker said the city “is extremely pleased that the court validated the right of cities and counties to enact an eviction moratorium under California law and squarely rejected the plaintiff’s claims that Oakland’s ordinance, as written, violates their constitutional rights in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic that has tragically taken the lives of more than one million of our fellow Americans to date.” 

Extended multiple times, the moratoriums are now set to expire once the county Board of Supervisors and Oakland City Council declare an end to the local states of emergency. Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that California’s state of emergency will end on Feb. 28, 2023, which could influence the timeline of the local declarations. 

During the September hearing, Beeler said the ongoing moratoriums gave her pause. 

“It’s a little odd, at this stage in the pandemic, to have an ordinance with no end date,” she said. 

Many owners of rental property in Oakland have been anxiously awaiting her ruling, including several across the country who’ve gotten in touch with The Oaklandside.

The lawsuit was filed in March by five local, small landlords, along with the nonprofit Housing Providers of America, which was incorporated early this year by prominent local developer John Protopappas. He is CEO of Madison Park, which owns numerous rental buildings in Oakland and elsewhere.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for advocacy organization ACCE, which participated in the lawsuit, said the tenant group is “relieved but not surprised” by the order.

“The city of Oakland and county of Alameda took brave and decisive action which protected untold numbers of tenants during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” she said.

This story was updated shortly after publication with a statement from City Attorney Barbara Parker.

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.