In an historic win for tenants’ rights advocates and Oakland’s most vulnerable residents, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously Wednesday morning after seven hours to place the strongest renter protection initiative that the city has ever seen onto the November ballot.
The vote comes several months after housing organizations, labor groups and interfaith leaders launched a campaign to strengthen Oakland’s 35-year rent law to help tackle the city’s unprecedented displacement crisis.
“We’re just so happy for Oakland to see that we could pass this with unanimous support from the council,” said Camilo Zamora of Causa Justa: Just Cause, which is a member of the Protect Oakland Renters Coalition.
“Hopefully, this will show people out there who are losing hope in Oakland that there is momentum, and a movement growing for them in the region,” Zamora said.
Now, the coalition will shift to campaign mode to encourage Oaklanders to registered to vote and go to the polls in November.
“We know that landlord and realtor organizations, on a state and national level, are going to put a lot of money into an anti-renter protection campaign to beat this,” said James Vann of the Post Salon Community Assembly.
“We need to be ready to fight for renters’ rights because tenants are the majority of residents and this is a fight for the soul of Oakland,” Vann said.
Wednesday’s vote is a first-time victory for Oakland tenants and housing advocates who have fought for improved renter protections for nearly every election cycle since 1983.
Not since 2002 has a renter protection initiative made it onto the ballot and just a couple of months ago it appeared that the council would not send renter protection to the voters this year.
“Just a month ago we only had three solid votes” in support from council members, while five were needed to place the initiative on the ballot, according to Zamora.
“They didn’t want a ballot measure in the beginning,” he said. “It just shows how the council was moved by community pressure to ultimately vote unanimously on this vital issue.”
The renter protection initiative, put forward by the renters’ coalition and introduced to the council by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, would make several changes to the current rent law if it is approved by voters in November.
These include requiring landlords to petition through the Rent Board if they wish to increase rents above the annual consumer price index, extending Just Cause eviction protections to buildings built up to Dec. 31, 1995, and increasing transparency and accountability of the Rent Board by broadening its powers to include more tenant representation.
On Tuesday evening, several hundred community members packed City Hall to speak to Kaplan’s renter protection proposal, the majority speaking in favor.
“Oakland is no longer a diverse city like it once was,” said Dorothy King, owner of Everett and Jones BBQ.
“I’m a landlord, but I got compassion for people,” she said. “They can’t afford to live here anymore and we need to put up some protection for people renting in Oakland.”
Dozens of small property owners spoke out against the ballot measure, arguing that by increasing protections to tenants, the city will be exacerbating Oakland’s displacement crisis since owners will be forced to sell their buildings to wealthier developers, thus hiking up rents.
But for many small property landlords, the opposite seems true.
“I want this city to be as diverse as possible in terms of class and race,” said Stephanie Schaudel, a landlord and public school teacher in Oakland.
“We’re currently seeing a bleeding of people throughout the Bay due to a lack of renter protection. We need the most aggressive and protective measure on the ballot,” Schaudel said.
The majority of speakers Tuesday night were tenants who have either experienced displacement or are in the midst of it now.
“I remember to this day in the fourth grade as my mother packed our belongings into a suitcase and we made our way to a homeless shelter,” said Sinorti Iris Stegman, an Oakland native who is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I made a commitment to return to Oakland and serve my community,” Stegman said. “Will I be able to afford to come back to my home and by the time I graduate, will there be a Black community to serve?”
Another renter protection proposal put forward by Councilmembers Dan Kalb, Abel Guillén, Annie Campbell Washington and Council President Lynette McElhaney was also passed this week with seven votes in favor and one abstention from Councilmember Desley Brooks.
Some of this proposal’s changes would not go into effect until as late as 2018 but would be superseded by Kaplan’s ballot measure if it passes in November.