In November, Oakland residents will vote on a ballot measure to expand the city’s rent control ordinance to tighten restrictions on a landlord’s ability to increase rent and to expand eviction protections to many additional housing units in the city. The legislation, the Renter Protection Act of 2016, would make several important changes to current law to strengthen tenants’ rights. It would place the burden on landlords to seek permission from the Oakland Rent Board before raising rents above the amounts allowed for in the Rent Ordinance. As it stands now, landlords can increase rents above the allowable limit and it is up to the tenant to either challenge the rent increase, pay the new rent or face eviction for non-payment. This is the same way it currently works in San Francisco. Tenants in San Francisco have the burden of challenging any rent increases that are beyond the limits of the Rent Ordinance.
Another feature of the Oakland ballot measure is its expansion of eviction control to thousands of rental units which are currently exempted from the Rent Ordinance. Eviction control is just as important as rent control because it restricts a landlord’s ability to evict tenants. In areas without a rent ordinance, a landlord can evict a tenant for any reason, with very few exceptions in state law.
However, even in cities with rent ordinances, not every tenant is protected. As it stands, rental units that were built before October 1980 are exempt from eviction control protections in Oakland. The Act would expand eviction control to housing that was built before 1996, requiring landlords to have just cause to evict tenants living in those units.
Tenants across the Bay from Oakland face similar exemptions. In San Francisco, rental units built before June 13, 1979 are exempt from the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. This exemption includes not only rent control but also eviction control. As more housing is erected in the city, more tenants are renting without the protections enjoyed by their neighbors who reside in older units. This makes little sense, divides tenants in the city into two separate classes and makes housing less stable.
It’s time for the laws to change to extend eviction protections to more tenants. Extending eviction control would require landlords of “newer” buildings (those built after 1979 in San Francisco) to have as their dominant motive for eviction one of the just causes approved by the rent ordinances. They would no longer be able to evict a tenant for simply any reason.
One criticism of extending eviction protections without also extending rent control is that landlords could simply raise tenants’ rents and legally evict for non-payment when the tenants can’t pay the higher rent amount. This would mean the landlords could effectively circumvent the just cause restrictions on evictions. This isn’t simply an academic issue; it has happened before and will likely happen again.
However, dominant motive, good faith, and honest intent requirements in the rent ordinances can provide an answer and an avenue for tenants to protect their rights. The rent ordinances in both Oakland and San Francisco require that a landlord’s dominant motive for evicting be one of the just causes specifically listed in the ordinance. Plus, a landlord must act in good faith and with honest intent in order to pursue a just cause eviction. If a landlord attempts to evict for reasons other than one of the permissible just causes, the tenant can sue for wrongful eviction and receive monetary compensation from the landlord, including attorneys’ fees and three times actual damages.
Rarely is legislation perfect. But the Oakland ballot measure would take one step further in protecting tenants. But we shouldn’t stop there. Expanding eviction protections under the Oakland and San Francisco Rent Ordinances would provide tenants in newer buildings with the same just cause protections their neighbors in older buildings have enjoyed for decades. While San Franciscans will have to wait for expanded laws, Oakland voters will get a chance this November to make important change and help protect their tenant community.