A number of housing rights activists are calling on the City Council to declare a housing “state of emergency” – to temporarily freeze rents and place a moratorium on all evictions – while the council passes laws to slow down the displacement of Oakland families, seniors and other long term residents.
“Everyone acknowledges there is housing crisis, but the City Councilmembers don’t do anything,” said James Vann, a member of the Oakland Tenants Union and a veteran housing rights activist.
“They need to declare an affordable housing state of emergency, and they need to declare a moratorium on evictions and enact a rent freeze,” he said.
Vann says a temporarily eviction moratorium and rent freeze are legal if the council passes a state of emergency, though such a decision would require support of 75 percent of councilmembers.
He pointed out that these emergency declarations were passed recently by the city council in the City of Alameda.
Civil attorney Dan Siegel, a leader of the Oakland Alliance, supports declaring a state of emergency to allow the council to freeze rents and place a moratorium on evictions.
“You could start out by banning all evictions, and then perhaps empower the rent board to make exceptions to allow property owners to tell their side of story (at a hearing),” he said.
Siegel also called on the mayor to work with other cities to repeal state laws that restrict the right to pass strong rent control measures.
“I would love to see Mayor Schaaf meet with mayors of other major cities to develop a common point of view and put pressure on the legislature,” he said.
Margaretta Lin, formerly a city staffer who spent several years working to produce a comprehensive Housing Equity Roadmap, spoke to the Post about some of the major steps in the roadmap that the mayor and City Council could take to slow down displacement.
One proposal is to pass a condo conversion law, which would close a loophole allowing the conversions of buildings with two-to-four units.
“At present 29,000 units are at risk. They are not protected by the law right now,” she said.
The city also has to do more to stop evictions, she said.
“We have a lot of holes in city’s laws to protect tenants,” said Lin. “We don’t have consistent relocation requirements, and no department in the city is set up to enforce the laws the city already has.”
The City Attorney’s Office could do, but it would need more funding, she said.
James Vann said a strong rent control ordinance is on the council agenda, but, “We don’t know if the City Council will have the guts to pass it,” he said.
Under the present rent adjustment law, which was written by landlords, tenants must know their rights and have to file a petition with the board, Vann continued.
“All the onus on the tenants,” he said. “The landlords can do anything they want, and it becomes legal if the tenants do not file a petition complaining about it.”
Oakland has 405,000 people living in 92,000 households. Sixty percent are renters.
Less than one half of one percent of tenants file a petition in a year, said Vann.
Vann said the Oakland Tenants Union has already submitted a rent control proposal to the Mayor’s Housing Cabinet. If the cabinet rejects or does not act on the proposal by February, the tenant group is going to begin an initiative campaign to put rent control on the November ballot.
Vann also proposed fees that landlords would have to pay to evict tenants.
“I think there ought to be a cost to evict a tenant,” he said. “It should be something that would discourage landlords, perhaps the costs of relocation and first month’s rent.”
Lin said that the city must do something to stop ongoing foreclosures, especially the loss of homes by low-come residents and elders on fixed incomes.
According to Lin, there is an existing plan, which has yet to be implemented, to sell distressed properties to a national nonprofit that would keep people in their homes.
This would replace the existing practice where the homes are sold in bulk to hedge funds and banks like Wells Fargo.
The city needs to pass a bond to create “homeowner preservation fund,” she said.
“It costs only $50,000 to a keep homeowner in the home, but it costs $500,000 to build a new housing unit,” she said. “We need an infusion a lot of money, not just for affordable housing but a fund to keep homeowners and tenants in their homes.”
*This article is the first is a series in which the Post is interviewing some of the local leaders who are frontline fighters against gentrification – for affordable housing, decent paying jobs and protected status for churches and artists.