It’s All About Rising Rents and Evictions
The plight of Alameda renters likely will dominate this year’s City Hall races.
Photo by Heather Finnecy
When Alameda Councilmembers Tony Daysog and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft last set foot on the campaign trail four years ago, the city was only beginning to crawl out of the Great Recession. Pension reform and concerns about the city’s finances were the main political topics on the Island. And as Daysog and Ashcraft begin their bids for re-election this year, another economic issue promises to dominate the discussion: whether Alameda can retain its affordability and help keep renters from being pushed out by rising rents and evictions.
Along with the two open city council seats, three competing ballot measures that seek to improve or tweak a rent ordinance passed by the council in March could appear on the November ballot. In addition, Alameda’s longtime city auditor and treasurer—both elected positions—will face challengers this year.
Over the past two election cycles, the number of candidates vying for the Alameda City Council has been small. In 2012, seven candidates ran for two seats. Two years later, just three campaigned for two seats. Alameda uses an at-large elections system, in which council members represent the entire city rather than specific districts, as in Oakland and Berkeley. In November, the top two vote-getters in Alameda will win seats on the council.
Four years ago, Daysog returned to the council after having served two previous terms. He won a seat in 2012 by employing old-fashioned, door-to-door retail politics on a shoestring budget. In an interview, he said he intends to do the same this election cycle. In fact, he’s been knocking on doors for weeks, telling voters about his campaign while gathering signatures for his ballot measure, which would amend the rent ordinance that he and his colleagues approved in March.
Daysog objects to an aspect of the new law: the amount landlords must pay to tenants for relocation fees upon evicting them. Under the new rules, when landlords evict tenants, they have to pay them $1,500 plus one to four months’ rent, depending on how long the tenant lived there. Daysog wants only low-income tenants to be eligible to receive the fees, and he wants to exempt “small mom-and-pop landlords” who live in Alameda from having to pay. Daysog, however, admits that it’ll be tough to gather the 6,500 signatures needed to qualify his measure for the November ballot.
Nonetheless, Daysog said he’s proud of the rent legislation. “We rose to the challenge of renters’ concerns to really stop large rent increases,” he said. In addition, both the rent-hike moratorium that the council approved in November and the rent ordinance itself made Alameda a regional trailblazer in terms of dealing with skyrocketing housing costs, he said. “It changed the dialogue for other leaders.” The Oakland City Council, for instance, followed Alameda’s lead and passed a rent moratorium in April.
Ashcraft also voted for the rent ordinance and now says she backs it strongly. During her campaign kickoff fundraiser in early May, she lauded the ordinance for limiting annual rent increases to 5 percent. Under the new law, if landlords want to raise rents higher than that, they must petition the city’s rent advisory board. However, Ashcraft’s support for capping rents has not always been robust. Throughout the city’s six-month-long discussion to find a solution for the rent crisis, she expressed doubts about whether rent control makes sense in Alameda. In fact, she prefers not to use the phrase “rent control,” assuring supporters that the new law is actually better described as “rent stabilization.” Her concern for the plight of renters, though, has been clear. Unlike Daysog, Ashcraft was one of two councilmembers who attended a well-publicized media event earlier this year to highlight the evictions of 35 families at the Bayview Apartments at 470 Central Ave.
During her tenure on the council, Ashcraft has developed a reputation for being one of its more thoughtful members. But she said she also understands that, considering the strain of anti-establishment furor seen on the national stage this year, similar attitudes likely exist locally. “In this day and age, you don’t take anything for granted,” she said, referring to her prospects for re-election.
Her potential opponents might agree. Aside from the incumbents running for re-election this fall, some candidates who have run for council in the past are expected to do so again in 2016. Former Councilmember Stewart Chen, who lost re-election to his two-year seat in 2014, is showing renewed interest in city politics. Earlier this year, he posted a query on Facebook that read, “To run or not to run? That is the question.”
Jeff Cambra, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2012, is another possibility. Cambra, though, may not be popular with the Alameda Renters Coalition, the well-organized tenants group, because of his role in arbitrating rent disputes between landlords and tenants. Cambra sometimes intervenes in cases before they go to the rent advisory board and then arbitrates them—a process that renters’ groups criticize because the cases then turn private and the amount of the rent hike is kept secret.
But the candidate who is most likely to strongly challenge Daysog and Ashcraft and perhaps grab one of the two seats is Malia Vella, a labor employment attorney and Mills College adjunct professor. Vella has already garnered support from the city’s powerful labor unions and recently received the endorsement of popular Alameda Assemblyman Rob Bonta.
“I’ve heard I’m the establishment candidate, which, as a woman of color, it kind of cracks me up that I can be part of the establishment,” joked Vella, who is a mixed-race Filipina.
If Daysog is the more conservative candidate on rent control, and Ashcraft is slightly left of center, then Vella is the progressive candidate most sympathetic to the cause of renters. Just read her Twitter feed, which earlier this year skewered the council’s failure to enact stronger protections for renters. Several months later, Alameda boasts three separate proposals: Daysog’s amendment to the existing ordinance, a proposed tenants’ ballot measure advocating for stronger rent control, and another one being pushed by landlords to ban rent control altogether.
“The reason we’re seeing so many measures is because no party is satisfied with the ordinance that was passed,” Vella said. “Policy is about buy-in, and you don’t get buy-in if you don’t structure the conversation in a way that gets people to the table. This is about bargaining and negotiating and about the shift of power.” She added that while property owners are entitled to profits, “there needs to be a check. There is a limit. It’s not profit at any and all cost.”
Alameda City Auditor Kevin Kearney and City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy, who are often referred to as the “Two Kevins” inside City Hall and have previously run unopposed, likely will face challengers this fall because of their strong public stances on reining in public employee pensions—stances that have often riled Alameda’s public safety unions. Labor leaders believe they have found worthy candidates to take on Kearney and Kennedy. Former Alameda school board member Mike McMahon is running for city auditor, while financial planner Jeff Bratzler is mounting a challenge for city treasurer.