Thursday, January 14, 2016

Endgame in Alameda: Rent Control?

The mass evictions at the Bayview Apartments
have become so infamous that its address is used
as shorthand for Alameda's rental crisis. 
ALAMEDA CITY COUNCIL | Before the 33 families residing at Bay View Apartments received a 60-day eviction notice in early November, the last fight at the complex occurred last spring. For the big Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather boxing match, Romel Laguardia set up his television in the center courtyard along with a fight night spread of food and beverages. “We’re family here,” he said.

But the camaraderie among longtime neighbors at 470 Central Ave. could change. In early November, building owner Sridhar Equities Inc. of San Jose issued 60-day eviction notices under a clause in the city’s Nov. 5 rent and evictions moratorium, which capped rent increases at 8 percent over 12 months. That loophole permitted evictions whenever landlords undertake significant capital improvements.

The turmoil at 470 Central embodies Alameda’s housing crisis. To renter advocates, Sridhar’s bold move undercut arguments for keeping the status quo. The city council unanimously closed the loophole on Dec. 1, but that won’t help the residents of Bay View Apartments.

At the council meeting at which the loophole was closed, Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said the landlords she had spoken with were “horrified” by the company’s actions. Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, a tenant who has yet to take a firm stand on how to solve the city’s housing crisis, said most local landlords treat tenants fairly, but that “we continue to have a few outliers who don’t get the message.” Councilmember Tony Daysog hinted that the council is leaning toward establishing a just cause component to a potential January rent ordinance that would prescribe specific criteria for when tenants can be evicted.

Such public attention for Alameda’s housing crisis makes some renters hopeful. Yet fear about whether they can afford to stay in Alameda permeates many conversations.

“Because of all of the stories, it makes you wonder when you’re going have a notice stuck to your door,” said tenant Kate Guidry. “I’ve lived here 13 years, and I don’t want to live anywhere else.” So far, her landlord has levied only modest rent increases, but anxiety persists. “If I get priced out of here, I’m going to have to go live with my parents, and that’s part of the problem. At 43, it shouldn’t be like that.”

Mel Potter, 66, who has rented a room on Park Street since 2001, has friends who have been priced out of town. A long positive relationship with his landlord comforts him, but “if had a different owner, I don’t know how I would feel.”

The Alameda Renters Coalition led the push for the moratorium and also stifled several appointments to the Rent Review Advisory Committee, forcing one pro-landlord member of that committee, Karin Lucas, to not seek reappointment. Lucas, incidentally, was the speaker whose comments were cut short when coalition members attempted to enter the council chambers in a November confrontation that led to the serious injury of a city staff member and the arrest of two renters, one of whom was bloodied by police. Scenes of the civil disobedience brought the coalition and its concerns much notoriety.

“We’ve shifted our focus, because we found renters in this town have no protections, and now we’re turning into more of an activist organization,” said group leader Catherine Pauling. The coalition’s intention is to bring some form of rent control to Alameda in 2016, which assuredly will face pushback from landlords. On Nov. 16, the coalition met with the city staff to offer a wish list of protections, including just-cause eviction laws covering not only apartments, but also condos and single-family homes. The coalition also articulated a desire for an elected renters’ advisory committee and suggested linking rent increases to inflation, such as 65 percent of the Consumer Price Index, and not to exceed 4 percent annually.

But few forces in Alameda are more powerful than landlords. The impetus for the Nov. 4 scuffle at City Hall was an allegation by renters that landlords, in a bit of political gamesmanship, had purposefully arrived earlier to fill the council chambers with their supporters. Perusal of the 136 speakers cards from that night confirmed that a large number were signed by those affiliated with landlords’ groups.

Landlords are already ramping up to fight rent controls. A pre-Thanksgiving telephone poll by an undetermined landlords’ group appeared to be gauging support for the 8 percent annual rent increases threshold while also measuring support for Mayor Spencer. Another phone survey reportedly began in early December.



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