Landlords protested at City Hall on Tuesday, calling for an end to Oakland's eviction moratorium. Credit: Amir Aziz

East Bay landlords filled the foyer at Oakland City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, their rally chants and speeches echoing off the walls as they called for an end to the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium. 

Later, the group erupted in protest at a City Council meeting, momentarily disrupting the session over concerns that they wouldn’t get to speak to the elected officials.

Oakland, along with other Bay Area cities and counties, put a pause on almost all evictions in March 2020, saying property owners could not kick tenants out of their homes unless they posed a direct safety threat, even if they couldn’t pay rent. These policies were written to prevent a mass increase in homelessness during the pandemic economic downturn that saw many renters lose jobs and income, and while a deadly virus was spreading.

Oakland’s moratorium will expire when the City Council ends its COVID-19 emergency declaration, or when the officials otherwise decide to lift the eviction ban. The council has not scheduled a vote on either item, though Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas has told The Oaklandside she’s working on a plan to begin phasing out the policy.

At the rally before the council meeting, many property owners said they’re owed tens of thousands of dollars in rent from tenants they can’t evict.

“How many of you are being stolen from right now?” Seneca Scott, an activist and former mayoral candidate who organized the rally, asked the group in the foyer. They cheered in response. “We have government-enabled theft,” he said. 

Local landlord advocacy groups In It Together, East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), and the Business and Housing Network all helped organize and attended the protest as well. They were joined by former City Councilmember Loren Taylor who gave up his District 6 seat to run for mayor last year.

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John Williams, an Oakland property owner who’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city and county, speaks at the rally Tuesday. Credit: Amir Aziz

“This sent me to the hospital for stress,” said John Williams, a West Oakland duplex owner who said his long-term tenant stopped paying the monthly $1,500 rent at the beginning of the pandemic, putting him at risk of foreclosure. Williams is a plaintiff in an ongoing landlord lawsuit against Oakland and Alameda County. At a court hearing last year, he said he’d faced housing discrimination as a Black renter and bought the building to ensure he’d have stability as well as rental income.

“Don’t let them steal from the immigrants, the Black and brown people of this community—that’s what they’re doing,” Chris Moore, an EBRHA board member who owns rental properties in Oakland and elsewhere, said at the rally. 

In their campaign to have eviction moratoriums repealed, landlords have often said the eviction ban is a policy that hurts people of color. However, a majority of the Black population in Oakland—around 70%—are renters, and about 75% of those renters are “rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their household income in rent. Black households also make up the greatest share of all renters in Oakland, at about 30%, according to a University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the city.

“This makes them most vulnerable to rising rents, and in need of support like rent relief during the pandemic,” the researchers said.

In addition to many small-scale property owners like Williams who spoke at the rally, some prominent landlords like John Protopappas, CEO of Madison Park, which owns many buildings in Oakland and beyond, were in attendance. Protopappas is behind the nonprofit that filed the lawsuit against the city and county.

Oakland, Alameda County, and the state did launch rent relief programs meant to take care of renters’ debt and get landlords paid. But the rollout of those programs was slow and often messy, and there are still many households waiting on payments and even more who got rejected or didn’t qualify. From the property owners’ perspectives, local government should do more to support them, whether through payments or tax forgiveness, to ensure they get covered for the rent they’re owed. 

But Bas has told The Oaklandside that the incomplete distribution of rental assistance is also one of the reasons the city can’t immediately lift the moratorium, since many low-income tenants waiting on their payments will otherwise be vulnerable to eviction and displacement.

Taylor, who spoke at the rally, told The Oaklandside afterward that a step-by-step phaseout of the moratorium—like Berkeley is planning—would be appropriate at this point, but that “one thing we don’t need to softly ease into is curbing the abuse—that should be immediate.” He said tenants who can’t prove a financial hardship, but are still not paying rent, should not be protected. Oakland hasn’t previously asked for that proof.

“We are flying blind,” said Taylor, who owns a single-family rental property but said he hasn’t lost income because of the moratorium. “We should have been more deliberate when we started,” gathering data. “Who’s impacted? Who’s using it?”

Taylor was part of the initial unanimous vote to instate the moratorium, but did not agree with linking it to the ongoing emergency declaration, instead wanting the council to revisit it much sooner in 2020. 

Chaos at council meeting

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council hadn’t planned to discuss the moratorium, but the council was scheduled to vote on a proposal to change how frequently the city revisits its emergency declarations, from 30 days to 60 days.

Before the group filed into the council chamber, Moore told the landlords he believed this proposal was an attempt to “delay” reconsidering the COVID-19 emergency and thus the moratorium, which is connected to it. 

“They do not want to talk about it,” he said. “They’re not leaving until they hear from us.” In It Together passed out talking points to the property owners, instructing them to say, “Let us speak” if the council tried to prevent them from talking.

Under the rules the City Council uses for its meetings, “public comment” is heard for all items on the agenda. Then at the end of the meeting, there’s an “open forum” period when anyone can talk about anything else. 

Introducing Tuesday’s meeting, Bas noted, “The eviction moratorium is not on the agenda,” implying that the landlords in attendance would not be able to make public comments about the policy. 

The room immediately exploded in shouts. Audience members stood up, waving signs that said, “Stop the theft,” drowning out the officials with yelling. 

Bas, saying she’d move the meeting into a recess, directed police officers to escort out anyone disrupting the meeting. A few minutes later, when she clarified that people were welcome to comment on the item about emergency declarations or anything else on the agenda, the crowd calmed. Dozens of landlords, along with some tenant advocates, lined up to speak. (The 60-day review was ultimately approved.)

“A certain percentage of the population has been enabled by this,” skipping out on rent, said EBRHA board member Josh Polston. “The problem is a sense of entitlement.” He said he knows many people who have extra rooms and units they could rent in Oakland but choose not to because of the eviction ban.

Lisa Schottenfeld, staff member at Causa Justa Just Cause, a tenant advocacy organization, said many families have difficulty paying rent because of continued impacts from the pandemic. The council should continue funding eviction defense and other legal services for renters who will be vulnerable once the moratorium expires, she said. Alameda County just voted against extending its legal services program.

“We hear story after story of tenants still struggling to pay rent, with debt accrued because of lost wages,” Schottenfeld said.

Property owners getting organized

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Former City Councilmember Loren Taylor addresses the crowd as Seneca Scott, who organized the rally, looks on. Credit: Amir Aziz

The landlord groups that took their protest to City Hall on Tuesday had gathered for a similar rally just a few weeks earlier before an Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting. There, one San Leandro rental property owner who’s been trying to evict a non-paying tenant since 2019 said he was on a hunger strike over the moratoriums.

That was Feb. 28, the day the state and county lifted their declarations of emergency, allowing the county moratorium to expire 60 days after that, April 29.

The repeat actions represent a swell in organizing by rental property owners, sometimes using tactics, like rallies and direct action at public meetings, historically more common among tenant groups. 

“I think everybody realized they needed to be organized to influence the council,” said Taylor. “Tenant advocates established the template that others are learning from.” 

“The only thing they understand is outrage,” said an Oakland landlord who said he’s owed $30,000, at the rally. “The only way they’ll understand is if we get better organized and rise up.”

“We need to continue to come out,” agreed Scott.

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.