Several people seated in the city council meeting room hold up signs in support of renters or landlords.
Renters and landlords packed Oakland City Hall on Tuesday, hoping to influence the decision about the eviction moratorium. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Oakland’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, first adopted in March 2020 as a pandemic upended daily life, will come to an end this summer.

The City Council voted at midnight Tuesday, after hours of passionate public comment, to sunset the policy on July 15. The vote capped weeks of protests by landlords and tenants, each hoping to influence the wind-down of the eviction ban.

The legislation, from Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and Councilmember Dan Kalb, also includes a set of new, permanent tenant protections in an attempt to stave off a flurry of evictions after the moratorium ends. 

Under the new policy, tenants who can prove they experienced a COVID-related hardship can never be evicted for unpaid rent that became due while the moratorium was in place. Landlords are also prohibited from evicting anyone who owes less than one month of what the federal government considers fair rent.

“We have spent many months listening to multiple perspectives on this issue,” Bas said at the outset of the meeting. “I am committed to moving forward a proposal that is responsible and meets our broader goals of housing stability, of homelessness prevention, and certainty about the end of the moratorium.”

Councilmember Noel Gallo was the lone “no” vote. He had previously attempted to end the moratorium May 31 instead of July, but his proposed amendment didn’t gain any traction.

“We should find a way to work with the small landlords,” he said. “The bottom line is I need to grow the housing market here.”

The proposal that ultimately passed had gone through multiple iterations. A previous version would have ended the moratorium in May for households who couldn’t demonstrate a COVID-19 hardship, and in September for everyone else. That initial proposal had more extensive tenant protections, too.

“It was clear to me that we needed to do more to amend this legislation to have support from a majority of the council,” Bas explained Tuesday.

Among the last-minute tweaks was the removal of a clause that would have required landlords to prove that they had suffered “substantial actual damage” in order to evict a tenant for violating a term in their lease.

Councilmembers Kevin Jenkins and Janani Ramachandran had taken issue with that proposal, saying the policy would unnecessarily duplicate what is already the law. 

Several tenant attorneys and renters called for the council to reconsider including this rule Tuesday, saying that codifying the policy in city law would prevent frivolous and expensive court cases. 

Jackie Zaneri, a lawyer with ACCE, read out unusual rules contained in a lease for an East Oakland apartment that she said required tenants to notify the landlord immediately if they changed their phone number, and to provide their landlord with ID for any adult visitor to the property. 

She argued that the city should make it illegal to evict tenants over violations of such insignificant lease terms that don’t cause harm to the landlord. While a judge may ultimately find such an eviction illegal regardless, putting this rule in the city code would make that certain, Zaneri said.

“Roe v. Wade was never codified by Congress and now it is gone,” she said.

The “substantial damage” provision was “very important to me and it was hard to take out,” Bas later said. Before calling a vote on the moratorium proposal, she asked whether the councilmembers opposed to that clause would reconsider adding it or explain their hesitation. Neither Jenkins nor Ramachandran responded.

Kalb said the overall legislation nevertheless expands tenant protections in Oakland.

“I think this is a win,” he said.

Landlords and tenants make their cases to council

eviction moratorium meeting
A landlord, in the red shirt, and tenant, in the beanie, get into a heated interaction about  property owners comparing themselves to slaves. Behind them, supporters of Councilmember Carroll Fife hold up graphic depictions of American slavery. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Oakland was among many Bay Area cities that placed an emergency ban on evictions in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis created historic levels of unemployment, and officials feared a mass uptick in homelessness among households suddenly unable to pay rent. As a deadly virus spread throughout Oakland, city leaders said they wanted to do what they could to enable residents to stay protected inside their homes.

“It helped achieve our goal of housing security,” said Bas. She’s presented city data showing that just over 800 eviction notices were delivered each year of the pandemic, compared to 6,714 the year prior.

But as the pandemic has dragged on, tensions arose over the continuation of the policy and the question of how to end it.

Tuesday’s meeting drew large crowds of renters and landlords who waved signs and formed long lines to speak their minds.

“I don’t want to evict anybody,” said property owner Michael Engle. “I just want to get what I’m due, because I’m owed $60,000. You need to just make everybody whole.”

“We were renters all my life,” said another landlord, who called the moratorium “draconian.” He said, “I was a homeboy that did pretty good…Many of the Black property owners that are speaking right now, we’re saying, ‘We’re just now getting ahead.’”

At previous meetings, landlord groups East Bay Rental Housing Association, In It Together, and Business and Housing Network, along with organizer Seneca Scott, held rallies demanding a quicker end to the moratorium and payback for landlords who are due rent.

Numerous renters, who make up a majority of Oakland residents, also spoke Tuesday, saying that ending the moratorium without strong tenant protections would exacerbate housing insecurity.

“The landlord’s worst case scenario is they can’t pay their mortgage and they lose the property they own, and maybe have to become a tenant and live like us,” said John deBoer of the Oakland Tenants Union. “The worst case scenario for a tenant is to end up on the street.” He said it’s “hard to appreciate the sheer terror you feel” after receiving an eviction notice.

Monique Berlanga, executive director of Centro Legal de la Raza, said the organization gets 200 calls a day, largely from tenants in tough spots.

“We’re already unable to meet the demand and the moratorium isn’t even lifted yet,” she said.

The city of Oakland and the state both offered rental assistance programs throughout the pandemic, with Oakland distributing nearly $60 million, Bas said. However, the city’s program was only available to very low-income households, and the rollout of the state’s broader program had several documented issues. Some landlords who spoke Tuesday said their tenants had refused to submit the necessary paperwork to receive the relief.

Bas also highlighted the California Mortgage Relief Program, calling it “severely underutilized.”

Carroll Fife addresses controversial comments

Tensions boiled over at times Tuesday, particularly around comments made by Councilmember Carroll Fife at an April 11 committee meeting on the moratorium, where some landlords compared their plights to that of slaves.

“I don’t want to hear another white, yellow, whatever, person talk about what my ancestors experienced,” Fife said at the time. Her use of a slur for Asian people drew criticism.

During lengthy remarks Tuesday, Fife described the horrors of slavery, as supporters held up graphic images from that era in American history. She said she reacted to non-Black landlords evoking that trauma to describe their situation.

“I deeply, deeply regret…those who heard my words and misunderstood my heart,” she said. “But I want to be respected because our pain should not be so cheap.” She said she stood with “oppressed people everywhere.”

As Fife was speaking, a landlord in the audience doubled down on the analogy, yelling that “one day of slavery is too much.” As a Black tenant in the room approached her with a camera, she shouted that he was a “slave driver.” When he refuted the criticism, the property owner called him a slave. He reacted in shock, saying, “I’m Black.” She responded that she’s Chinese, and referenced historical exploitation of Chinese Americans.

The moratorium item returns to the City Council on May 2 for a final vote. Usually the “second reading” is a formality, but in rare cases, councilmembers use it to reverse controversial decisions. 

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.