By James Vann
Oakland’s present catastrophic rental and affordable housing crisis, which monthly disrupts 1,000 long-established households through evictions, displacement, foreclosures, and destruction of neighborhoods, is not new.
The City has been in continuing crises since the late 1970s. At that time, rental properties were being flipped two to three times a year, each time with huge increases in rent.
Lacking any regulations, a quarter of apartment buildings surrounding Lake Merritt had been converted to condominiums; and “no-cause” tenant evictions were rampaging at 7,000 to 8,000 displacements a year.
By early 1980, broad public outcry prompted tenant activists to develop and circulate an initiative petition to place “rent control” on the ballot.
Fearing the initiative’s possible success, city leaders and the realty industry joined together to counter the tenant measure with a pro-landlord ordinance — not for rent control, but for “residential rent arbitration.”
The City-landlord alternative was rushed onto the ballot by unanimous vote of the City Council. Aided by massive spending, government-landlord collusion, deceptive billboards throughout Oakland, and letters on City letterhead signed by Mayor Lionel Wilson to each Oakland voter, the citizen initiative was closely defeated 53 percent to 47 percent.
Although renters have consistently complained to city leaders about the many inequities of Oakland’s one-of-a-kind-landlord-written law, the program has continued for 35 years to oppress and abuse the 60 percent of Oakland residents who are renters. Yet, there have been no changes of real significance from the City Council.
Following the landlord’s rental victory, a developer-driven condominium conversion ordinance was drawn up and adopted in1981. The ill-conceived no-fee ordinance profited converters by providing free access, without constraints, to 25 percent of Oakland’s rental inventory.
The new condo law further enriched developers by creating a lucrative new commodity called “conversion rights,” a valuable entitlement that can be sold and traded among housing developers for additional windfall profits, but no return to the City. To date, the city’s regressive condominium ordinance has resulted in the removal of approximately 3,500 badly needed rental units from the inventory and which, despite its obvious defects, has remained unchanged for 34 years.
Since 1980, there have been at least 16 concrete occasions where the City Council ignored or failed to take positive action on proposals and requests to counter the ever-present crisis in rental and affordable housing (for details of the Council’s failed opportunities, see the popular blog <DrakeTalkOakland>).
Fast-forward to the conditions Oaklanders are facing today. The City’s recently adopted — but not implemented – “Housing Equity Roadmap” documents that between 2000 and 2010, Oakland lost 33,502 Black residents and almost 17 per of families with school age children. The hemorrhaging and the crisis continue unabated.
Early in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration, she announced that halting evictions and displacement of long-term Oakland residents would be among the highest priorities of her administration.
Starting her second year in office, so far neither Mayor Schaaf nor the City Council has advanced any positive actions or concrete initiatives to achieve justice and equity for renters and affordable housing.
The inaction of Oakland leaders stands in naked contrast to “declarations,” “states of emergency,” or “moratoriums” on “no-cause” evictions and exorbitant rent increases that have been quickly enacted by several Bay Area cities in response to the region’s unrelenting crisis,
Despite the weakness or absence of leadership by our elected officials, renters can and must take positive steps to achieve housing justice. Tenants cannot match either landlord/developer dollars or their slick highly paid lobbyists who daily comb City Hall.
What tenants do have is the “power of the ballot.” This November, tenants, who make up 60 percent of the city’s population, can seize the opportunity, take charge of their own destiny, and enact the needed positive changes that our moribund city leaders, seemingly, have been too afraid to take.
James Vann is co-founder of the Oakland Tenant Union. In next week’s installment, he will discuss critical and needed state laws that hamper the ability of cities to protect tenants from runaway rents, evictions, and displacement.