Disabled Renters’ Fight Over Oakland Rent Control Advances

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Low-income renters whose disabilities may have excluded them from participating in Oakland’s rent-control program got the green light from a federal judge on their lawsuit against the city.

Most of Oakland’s disabled-accessible rental units were built after 1983 and are exempt from rent control regulations. In August 2019, Oaklanders Ian Smith, Sunday Parker, and Mitch Jeserich — all of whom have disabilities and use wheelchairs — sued the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act, after Oakland refused to extend the Jan. 1, 1983, cutoff date for its rent control program or modify it to encompass more modern, accessible housing.

Smith, who uses a power wheelchair, says his rent has increased 70% since he moved into his disabled-accessible apartment in 2012. 

Parker also uses a power wheelchair and since moving to Oakland in 2014 has struggled to afford her market-rate apartment. 

“Though she would prefer to live alone, Ms. Parker now lives with a roommate to offset the high and ever-rising cost of living in accessible apartment that is not covered by the city’s program,” the lawsuit says.

Jeserich’s rent-controlled apartment is far too small to accommodate his manual wheelchair, impeding his access to the bathroom and the refrigerator in his kitchen. He says he also regularly struggles to reach outlets and faucets.

The three sent a letter to the city on June 6, 2019, asking that it rewrite rent control program to include accessible rentals. The city has not done so, they say.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar refused to dismiss the case in a Thursday ruling that found all three renters had adequately stated claims for disability discrimination. 

“While soaring housing costs and a lack of accessible private units may be attributable to outside forces, the city is responsible for choosing which units to include in its rent control program,” Tigar wrote. “By choosing to regulate rent increases only on units that are not accessible, the city has allegedly denied plaintiffs meaningful access to the benefit it has chosen to offer.”

While Tigar agreed with the city that the market has affected housing prices, he noted that the renters are not suing because of the difficulties they’ve faced in securing affordable housing. Rather, they allege that because their needs require them to live in disabled-accessible housing, they are being foreclosed from the city’s rent control program because it excludes nearly all accessible units, and must suffer from the inconvenience and indignity of not being able to reach the faucet or fit through the bathroom door in a wheelchair.

Attorney Sean Betouliere with Disability Rights Advocates said by phone on Thursday that Tigar’s ruling is the first of its kind, and its effect could be far-reaching.

“This is the first time a federal court has issued a ruling regarding the application of federal disability laws to a city or state rent control program,” Betouliere said. “So this has some interesting implications for other cases in other places.”

Betouliere said his clients are still suffering under the same conditions as when the case was filed last year. Without getting into details, he said that while they did talk with the City of Oakland prior to the lawsuit, it was at that time unwilling to make substantial changes. He hopes Tigar’s ruling changes things.

“What we would be asking for is for the city to modify its program to encompass at least some units of accessible housing. What that number needs to be that’s to be determined in the course of the case. Some change needs to be made,” he said, adding, “Now that we have a ruling, we’re hopeful that the city will want to sit down and work with us to fix this — to essentially figure out, ‘How can we make a rent control program that this protected group is not excluded from?’”

The city of Oakland did not return an email seeking comment Thursday.

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