Oakland Rising Co-Authors Renters' Rights Bill For 2016 November Ballot
By Darwin BondGraham
On the same day that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf released her comprehensive plan to address the city's housing affordability crisis, a coalition of tenant advocacy groups filed a voter initiative called the “Renters Upgrade” that, if it qualifies for the fall ballot and is approved by voters, would dramatically strengthen renter protections.
“I am the face of displacement,” said Paula Beal, a member of Causa Justa, Just Cause, one of the groups sponsoring the measure, to attendees of a press conference on the steps of Oakland City Hall earlier today.
Beal said that her children and grandchildren have been displaced from Oakland due to rapidly rising rents and the absence of comprehensive eviction protections. Many of her family members now live in Hayward, Sacramento, Rodeo, and other cities. “For years, the city and county have ignored the housing crisis and done nothing to address displacement,” said Beal.
The groups sponsoring the Renters Upgrade announced today that they are moving ahead with a voter initiative because they don’t believe that the Oakland City Council or Mayor Schaaf will do enough to strengthen rent control and just cause protections.
According to sponsors of the ballot measure, the Renters Upgrade would expand eviction protections under Oakland’s existing Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance so that the rules apply to virtually all apartments in the city. Currently, apartment units built after 1983 do not fall under Oakland’s just cause eviction protections, therefore landlords can evict tenants for almost any reason in those buildings when their lease is up. According to sponsors of the Renters Upgrade initiative, this change would bring 45 percent more of Oakland’s rental housing under just cause protection.
The Renters Upgrade ballot measure would also set a cap on rent increases at 5 percent. Currently, Oakland landlords whose units are covered by the city’s Rent Adjustment Ordinance can increase rent as much as 10 percent in a year. The initiative would still allow landlords to increase rent more than 5 percent in cases where the landlord can demonstrate that it is necessary to provide him or her with a fair return on investment.
The ballot measure would also overhaul the existing Housing Residential Rent-Relocation Board, the appointed city board that hears appeals made by tenants and landlords regarding decisions issued by the rent adjustment program’s staff, and which also deliberates on changes to Oakland’s rent adjustment program and just cause housing laws, among other things. Currently, the rent board is composed of seven members: two landlords, two tenants, and three who are neither. The Renters Upgrade ballot initiative would reorganize the Rent Board so that tenants are a majority of the board’s seven members.
The Renters Upgrade initiative would also establish a maintained and publicly accessible database for all rent increases to ensure that the city and public can track rents. This would effectively establish true rent control in Oakland because under the current ordinance there is no tracking mechanism to ensure that all landlords whose units are covered by the rent adjustment ordinance only increase rents by the legally allowed amount each year. Currently, the city and public only become aware of rent increases that exceed the legally allowed amount if a tenant files a petition with the rent adjustment program to contest the increase. The database, which would be housed in the rent board office, would be available for members of the public to search, but it would not be posted online, said James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union, one of the sponsors of the ballot measure.
“On behalf of Oakland tenants who have struggled for over thirty years with a landlord-written ordinance, this is a proud day to finally look forward to a measure that will ensure justice and fairness,” said Vann.
Oakland Tenants Union
A community-authored initiative to strengthen renters' rights in Oakland was filed with the City Clerk Thursday, and hopes to appear on the November 2016 ballot.
“On behalf of the many Oaklanders who have struggled for over thirty years with the abuses of the city's landlord-written ordinance, this is a proud day to finally begin the process of qualifying a real rent control measure that will ensure justice and fairness for tenants." This was the reaction of James Vann, Oakland Tenants Union co-founder, referring to the Renters Upgrade Initiative that was filed with the Oakland City Clerk on March 3 by a citywide network of housing and social justice advocates.
The measure would extend protections under the Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance to thousands more Oakland rental units, implement the currently un-enforced Tenant Protection Ordinance, and reform the existing Rent Adjustment Program (Oakland's weak substitute for rent control) to make it much harder for landlords to raise rents above the rate of inflation, place an absolute 5% per year cap on rent increases, cover more rental units under rent control, and ensure a tenant-majority Rent Board, among other improvements.
Along with OTU, other organizations championing the measure include Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Alliance of California for Community Empowerment Action (ACCE), East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), Oakland Community Organizations, Oakland Rising, and the California Nurses Association and SEIU Local 1021.
While Mayor Schaaf announced her own housing plan on Thursday that focusses mostly on increasing the production of new affordable housing units, the Renters Upgrade Initiative would go much, much further than the Mayor's plan in providing immediate relief to Oakland renters facing evictions, landlord abuse, and impossible rent increases. While housing advocates attempted to work with the Mayor's "Housing Cabinet" last year to include many of the renter protection and anti-displacement provisions of the Upgrade Initiative into the Mayor's plan, these efforts were largely disregarded by the Mayor and the Councilmembers involved in the process. The Mayor's minimal attention to urgently needed anti-displacement measures in her plan only demonstrates the critical importance of a citizen-led ballot initiative for renters' rights that is not beholden to real estate interests.
The Oakland City Attorney now has 15 days to review the the measure and prepare a ballot title and summary before the City Clerk can issue a Notice of Intent to Circulate a Petition. Organizers will then have until June to collect enough certified signatures to place the Renters Upgrade Initiative on the November 2016 ballot, when voters will finally have a chance to enact meaningful protections to keep Oakland renters in their homes and communities.