Several apartment buildings of different styles on a hill, against a bright blue sky.
On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council updated its Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, which applies to most rental units in the city. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

If a landlord wants to evict an Oakland tenant for violating their lease, they’ll now have to prove that the renter’s behavior caused “substantial actual injury” to the property owner or other tenants.

The Oakland City Council on Tuesday approved this update to its Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, which spells out permissible reasons for removing a tenant from a property. Supporters of the new “substantial injury” rule say it will prevent landlords from using technicalities in the fine print of a lease agreement as an excuse to kick someone out. 

The change comes about a month before Oakland’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium is set to expire on July 15. Eviction cases have risen rapidly in the rest of Alameda County since the county’s pandemic ban was lifted, so numbers are expected to climb in Oakland too when the city policy ends.

“Putting this additional protection in place,” said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who wrote the amendment, “will help prevent a surge of unnecessary evictions.”

The new policy also requires landlords to demonstrate that the tenant’s conduct was “unreasonable.” Property owners are already required to send a written warning to renters about the violation, giving them a chance to correct their behavior before an eviction attempt. Under the new rules, this notice must be written in clear language and include several details about the alleged violation.

Bas and Councilmember Dan Kalb had tried unsuccessfully to pass a version of this policy in April at the same meeting when the council set an end date for the moratorium. 

At the time, councilmembers Janani Ramachandran and Kevin Jenkins said they opposed the “substantial actual injury” clause (then referred to as “substantial actual damage”) saying it was redundant with how judges interpret the existing laws that govern evictions. Bas reluctantly scrapped the proposal in order to get the votes needed on the broader moratorium legislation.

This week, Jenkins not only supported the item but even co-sponsored it with Bas.

“I believe it’s imperative that we protect Oakland’s most vulnerable residents from ‘gotcha’ evictions, while also allowing property owners to have rights that they need to have,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. But he didn’t explain why he’d changed his mind since April.

The policy passed with five votes, from councilmembers Bas, Jenkins, Kalb, Carroll Fife, and Rebecca Kaplan. Ramanchandran was excused, Noel Gallo was absent for the vote, and Treva Reid abstained.

Fish tanks and flooded floors

Speaking at the meeting, several tenant attorneys and renters said they’d seen countless eviction attempts for trivial lease violations.

“Leaving a tool box in the parking lot, having plants on the balcony, storing a bike in the hallway, having a fish tank, having a tenant’s kid visit, and having a birthday party for kids,” listed Samantha Beckett, attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. “These are of course cases that we win, but only after spending massive amounts of time and resources defending them.”

Several property owners who spoke at the meeting said the new rule would be yet another restriction on what they can do with their properties, after they’ve endured three years of an eviction moratorium. 

“It’s not something you can quantify—what’s injury to one landlord might not be to someone else. Who’s going to set the bar?” said Mary Coughlin. “I invite you to take the properties off my hands and try to deal with these limits and constraints you’re putting on me.” 

Another landlord, Stephanie Pascal, said she was left with $20,000 in damages after a “slum tenant” disregarded her lease by making changes to a historic home, smoking, not paying rent, and flooding the kitchen. 

A subsequent speaker, Rachel Beck, noted that this conduct would likely qualify as substantial injury, still allowing Pascal to evict under the new policy. Damage to the property and nonpayment of rent also qualify for eviction under the existing just-cause policy.

But the new legislation doesn’t define “substantial actual injury,” except to say that it’s not limited to physical injury.

A lawyer in the city attorney’s office, Laura Lane, said Tuesday that these definitions are for a judge to decide. She said the city can’t comment on whether a specific hypothetical situation qualifies.

“These are decisions the court makes,” she said. “These are phrases commonly used in legislation—’reasonable,’ ‘material.’”

The sticking point for Jenkins and Ramachandran in April was their belief that the changes would unnecessarily duplicate existing law at the state level, and that judges already prevent evictions over trivial lease violations.

On Tuesday, Bas said that “codifying” the rule in city law was an important step to prevent frivolous eviction attempts from occurring in the first place, regardless of whether they’d eventually be decided in the tenant’s favor or not. Court proceedings can be costly and time-consuming, she said.

“I’ve heard story after story…of tenants being served eviction notices and having to defend themselves in court over these trivial things,” Bas said. “If you are a law-abiding property owner, this should not be a problem.”

Reid said she abstained because there are “a number of questions we’ve not gotten clarity on” about evictions and legal services for landlords and renters. 

One of the questions Reid posed at the meeting was about the portion of evictions this policy would apply to. The question was not fully answered at the meeting, but data available online from Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program shows that the vast majority of eviction attempts in the city are for nonpayment of rent. Lease violation evictions make up only a small fraction of the cases.

The substantial injury legislation will come back to council for a final vote on June 20.

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.