Some of the November 2022 races were pivotal ones in determining the future of housing policy in the East Bay. Credit: Amir Aziz

The November election has given Oakland a batch of elected officials who, on the whole, may be the friendliest to renters’ issues of any set of city leaders in recent memory. 

Mayor-elect Sheng Thao is a renter herself, and a majority of city councilmembers either have substantial track records of passing tenant protections or have campaigned on the promise to support them.

But voters in one pivotal county race rejected a well-known renter advocate, leaving less clarity about the direction of housing policy at the county level, which could impact Oakland. 

Voters elected former Alameda City Councilmember Lena Tam to represent District 3 on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors with 52% of the vote. Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan had hoped to win that seat, which includes a chunk of East Oakland. 

Real estate interests poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort to defeat Kaplan and elect Tam, indicating they recognized the seat is a crucial one in determining the course of housing policy in the East Bay.

“I think [Kaplan] paid the price by being a strong renters’ advocate,” said Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who endorsed his colleague in the race. “That attracted the California Apartment Association and Realtor money against her.” 

Is this the end of Alameda County’s eviction moratorium?

Perhaps the hottest-button housing issue, and a decision Tam could face in her first months on the job, is the future of the county eviction moratorium. 

In March 2020, both the county and city of Oakland passed emergency bans on kicking tenants out of their homes, responding to the burgeoning pandemic that had cost numerous residents their jobs and threatened to make many of them homeless if they couldn’t pay their rent. Nearly three years later, the policies are still in place, meaning landlords can’t evict tenants for non-payment of rent.

In recent months, two members of the five-person county board, David Haubert and Nate Miley, have called on their colleagues to revisit the moratorium. At a meeting over the summer, Miley called the policy “draconian” and “an overreach on the part of the government.”

“We can modify it, so it’s more directly related to tenants suffering because of COVID,” instead of applying it to everyone, he said.

Lena Tam has declined to share a definitive stance on the eviction moratorium so far. Credit: Courtesy of Lena Tam

One of the three supervisors to disagree was Dave Brown, who was appointed to the D3 seat after his boss, Wilma Chan, was fatally hit by a driver while walking her dog last year. He said the moratorium continues to prevent the county’s most vulnerable tenants from ending up on the streets during an ongoing crisis.

If Tam sides with Haubert and Miley, that could spell the end—or significant scale-back—of the moratorium in the county. Currently, the policy is set to end when the county sunsets its COVID-19 emergency declaration. Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to end California’s state of emergency on Feb. 28, so it’s possible the county will follow suit. If it does, the moratorium will expire 60 days later—but the supervisors could also decide to change the policy at any point, regardless.

In a recent interview with The Oaklandside, Tam declined to share a definitive stance on the moratorium, saying she wants to examine data on COVID rates before making any decisions. 

She said she’s heard from many landlords of “abuses” by tenants refusing to pay rent, “but I’ve also heard some of the desperation of people who really need” the moratorium. She said she’d pursue policies offering relief to rental property owners falling behind on mortgages and costs because of missed rents, but “at the same time I understand we’re in an inflationary period where you can’t have a situation where there’s a big increase in homelessness.”

In other Bay Area cities and counties, eviction rates soared after local and state moratoriums expired, according to a Mercury News analysis.

While Tam hasn’t pledged a vote in either direction, some landlords hope she’ll be their ally.

“Tam is the most likely candidate to cast the necessary vote to put an end to moratoria and get landlords’ cash flowing again,” wrote Bornstein Law, a prominent firm that represents landlords, on its blog. A group of property owners has also sued the county and city of Oakland to overturn both eviction bans, but a judge rejected their initial plea, making the case likely to go to trial next year. 

Supporters of the moratorium agree with Bornstein’s prediction.“She’s going to be a third vote to end it,” Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for ACCE and an architect of the local eviction bans, said of Tam. 

Tenant advocates point to major support from real estate groups as one reason they expect Tam to side with rental property owners. The California Apartment Association spent over $470,000 supporting Tam and criticizing Kaplan in mailers and robocalls during the campaign, according to disclosure filings. And the National Association of Realtors spent $83,000 on ads and text messages supporting Tam.

But the moratorium will hardly be the only housing issue on Tam’s plate when she joins the dais. She’ll be governing a county where nearly 10,000 people are estimated to live without permanent housing, whose cities are tasked with building some 90,000 housing units in the coming years.

Tam told The Oaklandside she’ll pursue a new navigation center at a hotel building in San Leandro, and wants to build more affordable housing on public land throughout the county. She mentioned a recent audit that found shortcomings in Oakland’s homeless shelter system, saying the county could play a role in making sure the program providers file more consistent and accurate data. 

As for the real estate committees supporting her campaign, Tam said they’re among a large and diverse range of groups and people that lined up behind her candidacy.

“I think it’s because I was one of the candidates willing to listen. I didn’t have a track record for shutting the door on their issues,” she said.

Oakland has new renter protections

What does all of this mean for Oakland? In the short term, not much.

Oakland has its own eviction moratorium and city renters won’t immediately be impacted if and when the county ends its policy. The city’s ban is set to expire when Oakland’s own state of emergency ends, a decision that can only be made by the City Council. 

But if Alameda County ends its policy, that will prompt Oakland to take a close look at its own, said Kalb, who’s authored several of the city’s main tenant protection laws. 

“Eventually we’re going to have to make a decision in Oakland, regardless,” Kalb said. “We should prepare for that. There are already discussions underway of how one might narrow the focus of the moratorium.” 

City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who has a history of supporting renter-friendly laws, lost the D3 supervisor race but will remain on council. Credit: Courtesy Rebecca Kaplan

Kalb said he’d like the next version of the ban to continue protecting tenants who are still impacted by COVID-19, whether through reduced hours at work or because they have long COVID or are in a high-risk category limiting the sort of jobs or exposure they can withstand.

Simon-Weisberg said the impacts of ending moratoriums will be “disparate” throughout Alameda County, as Oakland and Berkeley have other strong tenant protections in place, while many of the unincorporated areas—like Ashland, Cherryland, and Castro Valley—and other cities don’t. 

Oakland has several brand new protections for renters, including a law capping annual rent increases at 3% for rent-controlled apartments, and a law passed by voters in November expanding “just cause” protections, which limit the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant.

“Oakland is going to do the best out of anybody,” Simon-Weisberg said. “But we still have rents that aren’t accessible to folks. Salaries have not gone up for the average person so there continues to be a huge gap between the rich and poor.”

Many local landlords who’ve spoken with The Oaklandside view the policies of the past few years as a series of assaults on their property and, in the case of some duplex or triplex owners who live in the buildings they rent out, their livelihoods. Some are owed thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and say they’ve had trouble paying their mortgages and other bills. Rent relief programs have not succeeded in meeting the extent of the need.

But the emphasis on renter protections is a relatively new direction for Oakland’s government, said Kalb, who was first elected to council in 2012.

“Prior to Noel [Gallo] and I taking office, the pro-landlord side and their big developer allies really kind of ran the table when it came to legislation,” squashing proposals for eviction protections and a plan to require a percentage of affordable units in all new apartment buildings, Kalb said. 

Kaplan, who will remain on the council, “has been part of the faction I’ve been part of,” Kalb said. Kaplan did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Thao, Oakland’s mayor-elect, has been part of this pro-renter caucus during her tenure on the City Council. As mayor, she’ll head up the city administration tasked with enacting the policies passed by the council, and is likely to support further renter-friendly laws. And with the passage of the Measure U infrastructure bond, they’ll have new resources to fund affordable rental housing projects.

During her campaign, Thao often promoted the idea of an “enhanced infrastructure financing district” as a central housing policy for Oakland. If implemented, a portion of future property tax increases in a designated area would be set aside to fund affordable housing projects in that area. The council has already voted to study the possibility of launching an EIFD in East and West Oakland. 

At the county level, Tam also said it’s one of the tools she’d like Alameda County to try out.

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.