Richmond Leaders, Tenants Battle Over Rising Rents and Displacement

Despite hearing emotional pleas from residents on the brink of losing their homes, Richmond City Council on Tuesday opted not to pass an emergency 45-day ban on "no-cause" evictions and rent hikes.

Mayor Tom Butt and council members Nathaniel Bates and Vinay Pimple voted down the moratorium, which some tenants described as their last hope for staying in the Richmond community. The vote, which followed several hours of public comment, required a super majority of six out of seven in order to pass.

At times, the meeting devolved into a shouting match betweent tenants facing eviction and the city leaders who halted the moratorium. When it failed, a large group of people in attendance began chanting, "Shame on you!" while council members struggled to be heard over the din.  

The mayor told the crowd of about 50 people that the issue is about supply and demand, stating that rent control would not fix the gentrification spreading throughout the working-class city of about 110,000. 

"I think it’s unfortunate that this whole discussion has been posed as a wedge issue," Butt told the incensed crowd. "Putting those who have compassion against those who don’t. It’s a lot more complicated than that."

Butt also called the situation a "manufactured crisis" orchestrated by the Richmond Progressive Alliance. "It's like throwing water on a grease fire," he said, unwavering from his long-held stance against rent control ordinances.  

But Sharon Brown, a 65-year-old woman who has been living in Richmond for six years, said her housing crisis feels anything but "manufactured." She and several others who attended the meeting are facing evictions at Creekview Condominiums, a roughly 200-unit complex on El Portal Drive.

Tenants say the property owner has given them 60 days to vacate so "major renovations" can begin on the mold-infested building. Brown said that as a result, she doesn’t have enough time to find alternative and affordable housing in the Bay Area, a region saturated with some of the nation's highest rents. 

"I started feeling like Richmond was my home,” Brown told the City Council, pointing out that she had joined a church and become a member of a close-knit community. "Please, just give us more time to find a place to stay. It’s not much."

Some tenants facing evictions at Creekview and other Richmond properties have alleged that recent evictions are a ploy to force them out, make repairs and improvements, and then hike rents past affordable levels. Once they're out, it's unlikey they'll be able to move back in, Brown said. 

Others have alleged that landlords are playing politics. 

Fellow Creekview tenant Eric Hattrup fears that the complex’s owners are evicting residents prior to Nov. 8, when Measure L, a rent control ordinance limiting price hikes and no-cause evictions, will appear on the ballot before voters. 

"That’s absolutely what it is," Hattrup alleged. "It’s all about money."

Hattrup has until Oct. 15 to leave his $1,600 a month, 2-bedroom apartment, which he shares with a roommate. He’s been unable to find affordable housing close to his two jobs in Berkeley and Albany, and worries he’ll soon end up living out of motels. 

On Wednesday, David Silver, a publicist who represents Creekview Condominiums, denied claims that the evictions are a guise to raise rents. He told NBC Bay Area that the buildings must be torn down and reconstructed, and that the process would cost millions and take years to complete. 

"The owners brought in specialists — mold specialists, architectural and engineering firms, healthcare specialists — and they said, 'You have to take this building down. It’s toxic,'" he said. 

Silver also shot down allegations that the evictions have anything to do with the upcoming rent control measure, calling the idea "financially insane." The process to fix the buildings, he said, has been in the works since late 2014, when they first discovered mold in one of the apartments. 

For people likezHattrup and Brown, however, the whys don’t matter much; their chief concern is finding a place to live in an area where low-income residents are seemingly being elbowed out.

An attorney from Bay Area Legal Aid said the organization has already helped 790 Richmond residents facing evictions so far this year, an increase from the 730 clients they helped in all of 2015. 

"We are seeing a huge increase in no-cause notices," said attorney Oraneet Shikmah Orevi. "We are seeing black and brown families evicted by the hundreds."

Orevi, who did not take a stance on the rent control ordinance, said she expects the group's Richmond-based clientele to increase by "about 65 percent" by the end of the year. 

As Tuesday's meeting came to a close, city leaders who voted in favor of the ordinance expressed weariness. Councilmember Jael Myrick compared Richmond to Alameda and Oakland, both cities that passed similar ordinances after a large number of tenants faced displacement. 

"This is not a radical thing. This is not a (Richmond Progressive Alliance) thing. How come they can do it and we can’t?" he asked his colleagues. "Why in Richmond do we always have to dig our heels in and turn everything into a battle royale?" 

Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@nbcuni.com or (669) 263-2895. You can also follow her on Twitter @GillianNBC for live updates on Contra Costa news and events. 

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