Former Alameda RRAC member Robert
Schrader during a hearing on Jan. 11.
Months after Robert Schrader was appointed to the Alameda Rent Review Committee in March of last year, he was asked to provide an analysis of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance for a local landlords’ group named Alamedans for Fair Rent Control, he said. The group formed part of the backbone of opposition toward a citizens-backed ballot measure last year to institute rent control on the island.
Schrader’s ties to Alamedans for Fair Rent Control gained the attention of the Alameda city attorney’s office last month because his participation with the group constitutes a conflict of interest for a sitting board member tasked with impartially mediating conflicts between Alameda tenants and property owners, said the city attorney's office. At the same time, the city also admonished Schrader for potentially violating a tenant's privacy rights during a meeting last month. On Jan. 31, Schrader resigned from the Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC).
Prior to that, Schrader told Alameda Assistant City Attorney Michael Roush that he believed his involvement with the political group was not improper and in fact legal under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. In addition, since the election has passed, the reason for the group’s future existence is unlikely. The city attorney’s office disagreed, also asserting Schrader is not just a member of the advocacy group but that he sits on its steering committee.
In a letter sent on Jan. 24, Roush wrote, “On this issue, we think that we will have to agree to disagree. The RRAC process is very public and is being scrutinized closed by landlord groups, tenant groups, the press and the general public. We believe that there is an expectation that those appointed to decision making bodies such as the RRAC will not put themselves in situations that could call into question their ability to be fair and open minded.”
Roush’s letter also casts doubt over whether advocacy by Alamedans for Fair Rent Control has indeed concluded, as Schrader contends. In light of the Alameda City Council's scheduled hearings next month to reevaluate the nearly year-old rent stabilization ordinance, Roush advised Schrader to cease participating with the landlord group.
“The reason I resigned is because they tried to quiet my voice,” Schrader said in an interview. “I’m a principled guy and I got involved with RRAC because I can see it’s an important thing to get people together.” Schrader sharply disagreed with Roush’s advice to withdraw from the landlord group. “It’s a matter of principle. If I can't have my private life, I don’t want to be involved.”
The five-member RRAC is comprised of two tenants, two landlords and one homeowner. Schrader was tabbed in March by Alameda Mayor Trish Spencer for one of the landlord seats. Schrader added he believes the city is more worried about negative comments about rents on social media than following the Sunshine Ordinance. He added that his background as a landlord is the actual value he brings to the RRAC. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Schrader. “If you’re going to have a landlord representative, I’m probably going to be involved with landlords. That’s what I bring to the RRAC. Why have a landlord spot?”
The efficacy of the RRAC as a legitimate avenue for tenants and landlords to settle rent disputes has been in doubt over the past year even after the City Council moved to somewhat strengthened its power. Tenant advocates say the RRAC tends to support rent increases in upwards of 10 percent, a number they believe does little to help struggling Alameda renters. Property owners, meanwhile, grumble about further restrictions placed by the city and RRAC on their ability to increase revenues for property improvements. Others, like Schrader, also question whether RRAC members are sufficiently trained to preside over mediation matters. “It is impossible to have proper mediation to occur in that venue,” he said. However, the RRAC may be insufficiently trained in other matters, especially privacy rights.
The city’s inquiry did not begin with Schrader’s involvement with Alamedans for Fair Rent Control. Instead, the impetus followed a line of questioning Schrader engaged with a tenant standing before the RRAC on Jan. 11, whereupon he improperly pushed for her to publicly reveal a medical condition. Immediately after Schrader asked the tenant to specifically reveal her condition to the RRAC, the program administrator and another RRAC member objected to the question. Each advised the tenant that she was not required to answer the question. Schrader, though, persisted, and the tenant freely offered the ailment. But not before adding that not even her family knew about the possibly life-threatening condition.
Schrader said he offered no malice for the question and believed the additional information might actually help the tenant’s case. After the hearing, Schrader apologized to the tenant. The city attorney’s office, however, disagreed with Schrader’s rationale for asking the question in the first place, noting the tenant’s paperwork merely reported she paid $1,000 a month for health care and medication. “That does not strike us as extraordinary and certainly not information that should have caused you to have inquired about a medical condition,” wrote Roush.