At hearings for landlord-tenant disputes in Oakland, both parties can have representatives present but often can’t access that support. Credit: Amir Aziz

Small landlords will be guaranteed expert representation at rent hearings in Oakland if the City Council approves a contract passed by a committee on Tuesday.

The proposed one-year contract would pay the East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), a landlord advocacy group, up to $150,000 to represent property owners in landlord-tenant disputes that are heard by Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program (RAP). 

Landlords who own fewer than eight rental units and who make under 100% of the area median income—including rent money and any other income—would qualify for this free assistance. 

Renters and landlords can both petition RAP to seek a rent increase or decrease, or if they feel their landlord or tenant has violated certain other rental housing rules. For example, a tenant might argue that they’re entitled to a discount because the building owner has illegally refused to fix a broken heater, or a landlord might argue that they can raise rents because their property is exempt from Oakland’s rent control law. 

Both parties are allowed to have a lawyer or other representative at mediations, hearings, and appeals for their case, but they’re not required to—and often don’t have access to that sort of assistance.

In theory, the rent program is structured so that people can represent themselves, said RAP manager Victor Ramirez during a council Community and Economic Development Committee hearing in October 2022.

“I don’t believe we’re ever going to achieve that in practice, because we see people coming from different places,” he said. “There are people who need this type of assistance to present their cases and claims before our hearing officers.”

The city wants to move towards a “right to counsel” model, said Oakland’s interim housing director Emily Weinstein last year. In 2018 in San Francisco, voters passed a right-to-counsel measure guaranteeing tenants access to a lawyer in eviction cases. While several nonprofits offer free legal services to renters in Alameda County, the same guarantee does not exist here. 

Oakland’s RAP hearings are administrative hearings, not court proceedings like evictions, so representatives for renters or property owners don’t need to be licensed attorneys. 

Last year, the City Council approved a $239,000 contract with Centro Legal de la Raza so that low- and moderate-income tenants could have a lawyer at their RAP hearings.

At the October committee meeting when that contract was discussed, staff also pitched a landlord contract for EBRHA, with different terms than the one that’s on the table now. Their initial proposal said qualifying property owners could have only eight or fewer units in Oakland but didn’t specify a maximum number of apartments outside of the city. The proposal also did not specify an income limit for landlords. 

At the time, councilmembers Carroll Fife and Dan Kalb questioned whether the contract could end up inadvertently paying for lawyers for wealthy property owners who happened to have only a few units in Oakland but numerous elsewhere.

“I want to make sure we’re serving the population that’s actually struggling,” Fife said during the meeting.

RAP staff rewrote the contract and put out a new call for proposals. EBRHA was the only organization that responded. Centro Legal provided the only response to the tenant contract, too.

On Tuesday, Denard Ingram, chair of the Oakland Rent Board, which enforces the city’s rental housing rules and hears appeals of decisions by RAP hearing officers, urged officials to pass the landlord contract.

“RAP is here to serve both tenants and landlords but we still have this very strong narrative that this program is only for tenants,” he said.

EBRHA is a nonprofit affiliated with the National Apartment Association. The organization, which says it represents 1,500 owners and managers of 43,000 rental units in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, advocates for policies supporting landlords and provides education on local laws.

The organization opposes rent control and its leaders have been outspoken critics of other Oakland rental laws. In recent months, EBRHA helped organize protests against Oakland’s eviction moratorium, including one where dozens of property owners disrupted a spring council meeting

“They’ve been quite antagonistic to many of the laws that have been put forward by the City Council and city of Oakland,” said Fife at the fall meeting, questioning whether representatives would accurately advise clients on following city policy. 

In response, Ramirez said supporting Oakland’s rent ordinance was not a requirement of the contract. Staff from Centro Legal frequently advocate at council meetings too, often pushing for stronger tenant protections. 

The city previously contracted with another organization, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, to provide representation for property owners at RAP hearings, but at the smaller amount of $50,000 a year. A report to the council from Ramirez noted that out of several Bay Area cities surveyed, Richmond was the only other one that funds representation for property owners.

The EBRHA contract is designed to serve up to 200 landlords in the next year, but the organization will only receive funds after the fact, for services it provides. Both EBRHA and Centro are required to track the demographics of their clients, and EBRHA must document work done around preventing illegal rent increases. 

The contract is coming to the full City Council for a vote next Tuesday.

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.