A lack of oversight may be allowing some Oakland landlords to exploit the city’s eviction laws, and tenants’ rights advocates warn the city’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income families and the elderly, are often prime targets.
City officials and tenant attorneys say Oakland is seeing a significant spike in “owner move-in” evictions, which allow a landlord to evict a tenant if they, or in some cases a relative, want to move into the home. Landlords who evict a tenant, under those circumstances, are required to intend to live in the unit for at least three years.
An NBC Bay Area investigation found city officials fail to follow up with landlords in order to verify whether they actually move into the homes where owner move-in evictions were filed. Tenant advocates fear some property owners are now exploiting this law by evicting rent-controlled tenants in order to usher in new tenants willing to pay significantly more in rent.
“Nobody keeps track in Oakland,” said Leah Simon Simon-Weisberg, Managing Attorney of the Tenants’ Rights Program at Centro Legal de la Raza. “The Rent Adjustment Program is very underfunded, so literally nobody is even looking at notices. Nobody has any idea.”
Although copies of all eviction notices are kept on file at Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, city officials tell the Investigative Unit no one is currently tracking how many owner move-in evictions occur each year, let alone attempt to determine how many of those evictions may be fraudulent.
“Unfortunately, we have not had the ability to go out and verify and enforce it,” said Michele Byrd, who oversees the Oakland’s enforcement process as Director of Housing and Community Development. “The systems that we have in place were for issues that were relevant at that point in time and so now we’re updating our processes and our policies to reflect what is going on currently.
Two years ago, an NBC Bay Area investigation into owner move-in evictions in San Francisco exposed what appeared to be widespread abuse of the city’s housing laws. Lawmakers responded to that investigation by implementing one of the city’s largest housing reform efforts in recent history in order to prevent landlords from exploiting the system.
Now, similar changes may be coming to Oakland.
On Tuesday, Byrd said the Oakland City Council is scheduled to vote on a potential new law that would institute new requirements for landlords who file owner move-in evictions. Landlords, she said, would be required to submit proof, such as a utility bill, that they are continuing to live in the home for the required three years. The Office of Housing and Community Development also says it will have additional staff in place soon, which will help the agency keep track of evictions and potential fraud.
“We were concerned about what we were hearing and what happened in San Francisco where [NBC Bay Area] did the investigation and you found out that a number of owner move-ins were not actually owner move-ins,” Byrd said. “We wanted to be proactive as possible to not be caught in that situation.”
But many housing advocates say the city is not ramping up enforcement fast enough. They also say officials must do more to close remaining loopholes that may allow some landlords to exploit the system for profit.
“Not knowing where you’re going to live the next day is really stressful”
Josephine Hardy moved into a West Oakland triplex with her husband 47 years ago. Over the years, two more generations of her family would come to occupy the other two units in the triplex. When Hardy’s husband passed away in 2013, that family was her support system.
“I’ve been here so long,” Hardy said. “I could probably walk around with my eyes closed and not bump into something. And my family is here. My daughter lives downstairs, my granddaughter lives downstairs, my son lives next door. It’s family. It’s support.”
But the family matriarch believes her support system may soon be split apart.
The triplex Hardy and her family live in was sold last year, and just a month later, the new owner tried raising the rent far beyond what was legal under rent control. The proposed rent hike would have taken her $900 rent to $2,500 per month. The downstairs unit, home to her daughter and granddaughter, cost $1,450 per month, but the landlord attempted to raise the rent to more than $3,500.
Simon-Weisberg fought the rent increase on behalf of the family and prevailed in court. Soon after, however, the landlord was back with an eviction notice. He was kicking out Hardy’s son Khaliff, saying he was going to move into the unit.
“I mean my mouth just dropped,” Hardy said. “I guess I kind of went into shock and didn’t realize what I was going through because I was speechless for a minute.”
In 2016, Oakland voters passed Measure JJ, which expanded eviction protections (LINK) for tenants and required the city to prepare detailed reports on the number and types of evictions that were occurring each year.
But Simon-Weisberg says rent-controlled tenants like Hardy are still at risk due to a lack of enforcement. She also points to a loophole that doesn’t extend eviction protection to people living in the thousands of duplexes and triplexes across Oakland once the landlord moves into the building.
Since Hardy’s landlord now says he is moving into the triplex, he is able to almost immediately evict the remaining tenants for no reason at all.
“What can happen is that the landlord moves into a unit, and then they can walk downstairs and serve the [other] tenants a 60-day notice to move out immediately,” Simon-Weisberg said.
Even if the landlord decides to evict Hardy and her remaining family, city law prohibits him from raising the rent on those units for two years after he moves in. Simon-Weisberg, however, says landlords can still get away with breaking those rules since the city fails to follow up on such cases. In addition, she says landlords can manipulate tenants into moving out on their own for a small sum of money by dangling the threat of eviction over their heads. If those tenants accept and willingly walk away from the unit, the landlord can legally raise the rent by any amount.
“There is no systemic way that anyone is doing any enforcement,” she said. “It’s a complaint based system and we know complaint-based doesn’t work.”
Now, with no protections in place, Hardy and her family live with the fear of eviction constantly looming.
“That leaves my mother and I as well as my grandma in just another dilemma of what’s next,” Hardy’s granddaughter Raynette said. “Who wants to live their life like that? I don’t. Moving somewhere, especially in the Bay Area, is not that easy nowadays.”
City says stronger enforcement is coming
Byrd acknowledged the city’s own record-keeping has made it nearly impossible to determine the total number of owner move-in evictions in Oakland, legitimate or fraudulent.
She said she has been working with the City Council on ways to address those issues, and said a new ordinance being voted on next Tuesday would give tenants more information about their rights and require landlords to submit annual proof that they are still living in a unit for at least three years following an owner move-in eviction. Landlords will also have to certify, under penalty of perjury, they intend to live in the unit for the required amount of time.
“With the new systems in place, the certifications, we’ll be able to have that on an annual basis.”
Measure JJ, which went into effect last year, required the city to begin compiling reports on eviction trends. But Byrd says the staff required to do that are still not in place. She said those positions will likely be filled within the next few months.
“We are working diligently to get the staff in place and get ramped up so we can move expeditiously on this,” Byrd said. “As we’ve seen, when we took this before the committee, there is an overwhelming [belief] from advocates that this is a problem.”
Simon-Weisberg believes the city is moving in the right direction, as evidenced by another recent reform effort in Oakland requiring landlords to pay relocation expenses to evicted tenants.
Those efforts, however, provide zero protections to tenants like Josephine Hardy, who live in either a duplex or triplex. Hardy remains at risk of being forced out of her home at any time.
“What we’ve seen is that a lot of new investors are purchasing triplexes and duplexes and they’re taking advantage of this loophole,” Simon-Weisberg said.
A ballot measure would be required to protect the Hardy family and others from “no cause” evictions.
“I felt like I needed to [speak out] because we’re not the only family that’s in this predicament,” she said. “We’re not the only Oakland family who is being forced out of their home.”