Oakland Moves to Protect Renters Amid Housing Crisis

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — In the face of soaring Bay Area rents and what experts decry as a public health crisis, the Oakland City Council voted Tuesday to strengthen protections for the city’s tenants.
     The council unanimously approved eight amendments to Oakland’s rental laws, prohibiting landlords from raising rents above the annual consumer price index increase and extending the number of years that some buildings are protected by rent control, among other things.
     The amendments will help tenants stay in their homes by safeguarding them from evictions precipitated by ballooning rental costs and changes in building ownership, the city hopes.
     “I think this is a smart ordinance,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb, who proposed the amendments along with fellow members Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Abel Guillen.
     Although Oakland residents will be voting on a renter protection measure in November to make it harder for landlords to increase rents and evict tenants, the council passed Tuesday’s amendments to stem the displacement of longtime residents in a process it says is changing the city’s “character and diversity.”
     Oakland rents are the fourth highest in the nation, behind San Francisco, New York and Boston, and the displacement of renters due to large rent hikes and insufficient housing stock is a growing problem in the city of 419,000.
     According to a report by councilmembers Kalb, Gibson McElhaney and Guillen, the median rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland was $2,700 a month in February 2016, 19 percent higher than last year. A household living in a two-bedroom apartment and earning the city’s 2014 median income of $36,657 spends 85 percent of its income on rent.
     Affordable rent is defined as spending only 30 percent of income on rent. For a household making the median income in Oakland, rent on a two-bedroom apartment should amount to just $916, the councilmembers said.
     On Tuesday, Marc Janowitz of the East Bay Community Law Center told the City Council that while he supported the amendments, they don’t go far enough to protect tenants.
     “These are modest proposals, not anything far out,” Janowitz said. “They will not impinge on property owners’ profits.”
     Under the current law, landlords who move into one of the units in a two- or three-unit building can exempt their buildings from rent control after one year. Now, they’ll have to wait two years, and must prove they’ve lived in the building those two years.
     Landlords will also be required to petition the rent board for permission to increase rents above the annual consumer price index increase. Currently, landlords can hike rents by any amount, and it’s up to tenants to protest increases to the rent board.
     Jill Broadhurst, an executive director with the pro-landlord East Bay Rental Housing Association, slammed an amendment requiring landlords to pass on costs of capital improvements to tenants over the useful life of the improvement, calling it “highly detrimental” to small property owners. Right now, owners can recoup those costs through a single large rental increase.
     “By your support in this measure you are approving the degradation of housing in the city of Oakland, all of you,” Broadhurst told the council. “The people that you are putting through the paces on this are a group of people who are diversified, from different socio-economic backgrounds. You will be displacing those people in the city of Oakland.”
     Landlords will also have a harder time “gold plating” their buildings — making expensive but unnecessary building improvements to raise rents and push out tenants. If a tenant doesn’t agree to the improvements in writing, landlords will only be able to pass on the cost of equivalent improvements.
     Janowitz attacked Broadhurst’s assertions. He said wealthy, rent-controlled cities like Berkeley and Santa Monica have the most valuable and well cared for real estate in the nation.
     “We have heard the same tired old nonsense about the degradation of the housing stock by strict rent control,” Janowitz said. “It is not proven historically to be correct.”
     While the amendments help renters already in their homes, a speaker named Jeff Levin told the council it had neglected tenants moving within the city. When apartments become empty, landlords raise rents to market rates, making finding a new apartment too costly for many.
     “[Those units] need to remain as a resource for working people in Oakland so they have a place to go when they need to move,” he said.

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