An Uncertain Future

Although voters rejected tenants’ request for a moratorium on evictions, tenants hope the new Alameda council will be more sympathetic to their cause.


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Catherine Pauling of the Alameda Renters Coalition said there was confusion over the measures.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Just as they did almost one year ago, members of the Alameda Renters Coalition gathered on the steps of City Hall in late November, signs in hand, to push for a 90-day emergency moratorium on evictions in the city. Several speakers recounted the fear and despair that many Island renters continue to feel. Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, urged the group to continue fighting.

But city officials quickly dashed the renters’ hopes, rejecting the moratorium request. Officials noted that just 17 evictions were reported to the Alameda Housing Authority in the six months since the city council’s tenant protection ordinance went into effect in April. Therefore, the city had no legal justification for enacting an emergency moratorium. “While we understand the very real hardship these terminations cause Alameda residents and families, the data we have does not provide overwhelming evidence of widespread displacement supporting a serious health and safety issue,” said City Manager Jill Keimach.

It was another bitter defeat for Alameda tenant activists in 2016. On Nov. 8, city voters overwhelmingly rejected the tenant coalition’s rent control initiative, Measure M1. The measure would have given Alameda one of the toughest rent control laws in California, but it lost in a landslide, 34 percent to 66 percent. Alameda voters, instead, approved the council’s more moderate ordinance, known as Measure L1, 55.5 percent to 45.5 percent.

But Alameda tenants aren’t giving up; rather, they’re narrowing their postelection focus to regulating evictions without just cause—evictions that involve landlords displacing tenants for no reason. Both Oakland and Berkeley ban such no-cause evictions.

And many observers expect the new Alameda council, seated in mid-December, will shift somewhat to the left. Councilmember Tony Daysog, who was viewed as one of the more conservative votes on the last council, was replaced in the November election by Malia Vella, who is expected to be not only more liberal but also more sympathetic to renters’ issues.

During the campaign, the renters’ coalition strongly supported Vella, and she turned out to be the top vote-getter. “In spite of everything against us, we are becoming a force in this city,” said Catherine Pauling, spokesperson for the Alameda Renters Coalition.

Vella grabbed 24.3 percent of the vote, while Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft finished second, taking 21.9 percent and winning the other council seat that was up for grabs. Daysog finished third with 20.0 percent. (His last council meeting was on Dec. 6.) Candidates Jennifer Roloff (18.3 percent) and Lena Tam (15.3 percent) finished in fourth and fifth, respectively.

Vella said she intends to focus on the renters’ crisis during her early days in office. “This is not an issue that is going away, and people are still dealing with the repercussions,” she said. “How many cases do you need to have in order to have a problem? I don’t think we need to wait for another 470 Central [Avenue].” She was referring to the infamous Alameda apartment building where 30 families received eviction notices last year. “I don’t want 470 Central to happen for nothing.”

The question for other councilmembers is: What other lessons can they glean from the election and the rest of 2016? In March, renters’ advocates finally convinced the council to pass tenant protection legislation that alleviated some burdens on renters. But tenants were deeply unsatisfied with the ordinance, and so they collected more than 7,000 signatures to place a strict form of rent control on the ballot. Unfortunately for them, city councilmembers then placed the ordinance they passed in March on the ballot, too.

Many in the coalition said the inclusion of the council’s Measure L1 and the expensive campaign that followed scuttled any hope for passing their stricter version of rent control in Alameda.

“We received over 10,000 votes in spite of being outspent 20 to 1 and with a lot of misinformation out there,” said Pauling. “We know through phone banking, right up until the end, that people were becoming confused by which one was from the renters’ coalition and which one was the lesser version. To sum up: A dozen glossy mailers with a bunch of lies were effective.”

Proponents for Measure L1, for example, advertised on numerous fliers during the campaign that their measure represented “real rent control.” Pauling said the mailers contained other falsehoods. “They claimed a 5 percent cap on annual rent increases. They claimed there are eviction protections.” In truth, Measure L1 included no cap on rent hikes nor did it ban landlords from evicting tenants without just cause. Instead, it allows tenants to seek mediation when their landlords raise rents by more than 5 percent.

Pauling argued that Measure L1’s misleading campaign showed that there was support for “increased renters’ protections” in Alameda. But this belief is not shared by many property owners and opponents of Measure M1.

“I think many people are interpreting it in different ways,” said Councilmember Jim Oddie, an L1 supporter. “I interpret Measure L1 as the affirmation of the hard work the council did and the time and energy the staff put together for an Alameda solution to the rent crisis.” Oddie said voters sent a clear message in opposition to Measure M1, but acknowledges some portions of the initiative might still be popular for some.

“The question is whether they can find a sympathetic audience and whether we’re ready to have that battle again,” said Oddie. “There are people who believe this issue is resolved. We’ll see.”

Landlords also want changes to the existing rent stabilization ordinance, possibly lowering relocation fees that landlords must pay when they evict tenants and removing such payments altogether for single-family dwellings.

But Vella believes the renter’s cause was validated, at least in part, by Island voters. “I don’t think you can say they lost,” said Vella. “I think they made quite a statement. I think going forward they will be wiser in terms of being battle-tested.”

Throughout the campaign, candidates on either side of the rent issue were in agreement that changes to the existing rent stabilization ordinance were needed and its initial one-year review is due to come before the council in March. Vella said she intends to offer some changes to the ordinance and wants to have a discussion on just cause protections. However, she expects significant pushback from landlords on the issue. A middle ground, she said, might be found by initiating a process for mediating no fault evictions.

In other words, as winter sets in, Alameda renters continue to face an uncertain future.

 

Published online on Jan. 3, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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