Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tenants' Rights Resolution Heads To Oakland City Council As Talks Continue

OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | A resolution package giving Oakland renters some power to limit landlord’s ability to pass on capital improvement costs to tenants was moved in its entirety to the full City Council next week.  A motion by Councilmember Libby Schaaf also allows for landlord and tenants groups to continue refining the proposal over the next week.

Two weeks ago, the issue of renters’ rights took center stage before the same Community and Ecoonomic Development Committee. However, no determination was made Feb. 25. In the meantime, council members and stakeholders continued discussions, which Schaaf labeled “fruitful.” A staff recommendation this week calls for the number of years landlords can amortize capital improvement costs to be extended from 5 years to 20 and caps the rent increase at 10 percent. In addition, landlords would be asked to petition the city for rent increases.

Currently, the only way for the city to track rent increases triggered by capital improvement projects is only when renters issue a complaint. Most tenants, however, may be unaware of their rights regarding the complaint system, says Oakland tenants' rights advocate James Vann. Therefore, less than one percent of renters lodge a complaint. Vann rhetorically asked why more tenants did not use their rights: “Because landlords are getting away with murder,” he said. A number of landlords and landowners' advocates told the committee the current system has worked well for decades and note the paltry number of complaints to the city as evidence of its success.

In a burgeoning era of wide disparities in wealth in Oakland, along with gentrification, tenants’ rights groups say the city’s rules on landlord’s passing on improvements to their buildings, sometimes in large rent increases, unjustly put the onus of renters to lodge complaints. Moreover, there is no current method of accounting to discern whether voluntary capital improvements are being made by landlords or they are actually deferred maintenance projects stemming from normal wear and tear on aging buildings.

Robbie Clark of Causa Justa, a Bay Area economic justice group for low-income residents, said much of Oakland’s housing stock is comprised of older buildings and therefore, naturally are in need of repairs, but there is no way of knowing whether a leaky roof is being repaired or a new bay window is being installed in a kitchen. “We don’t have the numbers,” said Clark. “We don’t have a way to distinguish them.”

The poster person for the debate pitting tenants and landlords over rising rents is Adams Point resident Clifton Harrison, whose rent increased from $1,057 to $2,245 following a remodel of the two-room apartment’s bathroom. “This is a blatant abuse of the capital improvement clause,” Harrison told the committee Tuesday, while noting his landlord was also in attendance. “It’s a giant loophole for the tenant to pay for deferred maintenance.” Harrison added, the steep increases are being used to force long-time under market tenants like his family out of their homes.

Kathleen Solares, Harrison’s landlord, disputed her tenant’s description of the situation. Over the past 26 years the tenant has rented the unit, she says, the total amount of rent increases were less than one percent. She also claimed to have never passed on debt service costs to Harrison.

Three of the four members of the committee appeared amendable to the staff’s recommendation, including Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Pat Kernighan and Schaff. Councilmember Larry Reid, however, continued have unspecified reservations and indicated, as the resolution stands, he would vote to abstain at next week’s meeting.


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