Property Owners Hope to Move the Alameda Election
A group called Alamedans in Charge is attempting to block just cause protections and defeat progressive pro-tenant candidates.
Illustration by Raisa Yavneh
Landlords who own property in Alameda have raised a whopping $350,000 in an effort to defeat pro-tenant candidates and enshrine a rent stabilization ordinance in the city charter this November — moves that housing activists say will be bad for tenants.
The group calling itself Alamedans in Charge is being backed by landlords, many of whom don’t live in Alameda but own property on the Island. The Walnut Creek-based owners of Ballena Village, the large waterfront rental property near Encinal High School, contributed $42,588 to Alamedans in Charge last year, as did the owners of the Tower Apartments, which overlooks the estuary. Gilbert Gregori of Garberville, the owner of the Surfside Apartments, gave $26,200, and Dublin-based Emerald Properties, which is associated with the Shoreline Apartments, contributed $19,863.
San Francisco-based landlords also added greatly to the campaign’s coffers, including the owners of the Villa Marina Apartments ($5,322), Wavecrest Apartments ($4,472), Driftwood Apartments ($5,676), Lanai Apartments ($4,472), and Bay Royal Apartments ($4,128).
Just why is all this landlord money flowing into Alameda’s election? And what’s at stake?
Last year, the Alameda City Council voted to add just cause eviction protections to the city’s rent stabilization ordinance. The protections forbid landlords from evicting tenants without a specific reason, such as failure to pay rent.
At the same time, the council added language in the ordinance to thwart the eviction attempts at Alameda’s Bayview Apartments. Matt Sridhar, the CEO of San Jose-based Sridhar Equities, LLC, who owns the properties, had threatened to evict all 33 families at the complex three years ago, causing the city council to enact a moratorium on evictions in the city. But Sridhar tried to use a loophole in the moratorium — just days after it was approved — to evict them anyway. The council then voted to close the loophole. But that hasn’t stopped Sridhar from trying to evict tenants. Last December, at least 10 residents at the complex received eviction notices, according to the East Bay Times. In many ways, the Bayview evictions became a flashpoint for tenant activists on the Island.
Several landlords had argued that the just cause protections would place additional restrictions on them and ultimately force them out of business. Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer and Councilmember Frank Matarrese also opposed the just cause protections, saying they would worsen Alameda’s already limited housing supply.
So Alameda property owners launched a petition drive for a referendum against just cause and a ballot measure that would amend the city charter to lock in place Alameda’s currently weak tenant protection law, effectively blocking the council from approving just cause or rent control in the future. The petitions gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot but the council opted against placing the just cause referendum before voters, choosing instead to rescind the just cause protections from the city ordinance.
But the city council formally approved the measure to enshrine the city’s current rent stabilization ordinance, which was originally approved in March 2016, in the city charter. If voters approve the measure in November, it would make it more difficult to make changes to the ordinance. Currently, the ordinance can be revised by a majority of the council, but as a charter amendment, it could only be altered by a vote of the people, which would be far more expensive and complicated.
None of the property owners funding Alamedans in Charge responded to requests for comment. But according to a letter sent last year on behalf of Alamedans in Charge by Don Lindsey, one of Alameda’s most influential landlords and co-founder of the property management firm Gallagher & Lindsey, the landlords’ group was preparing for a yearlong battle against tenants and progressive politicians in an effort to recapture City Hall. “The war that we are fighting seems to be about rent control, but that is only a small part,” Lindsey wrote in his letter. “It is the vehicle they are using to rally the progressive community to take control of Alameda.”
He warned that the pro-tenant group the Alameda Renters Coalition would “distort our proposed Charter Amendment and claim it is an assault on tenant rights. We further anticipate that people running for office on the progressive side will lock arms with the tenants trying to gain their support for votes.
“We need to wrestle political control away from the far left and restore it to the middle,” he continued. “The way to achieve this is to run a vigorous and ubiquitous campaign to win the charter amendment and to elect a mayor and city councilmembers who are fair and open minded.”
But besides raising money, the landlords’ group has thus far kept a low profile. “It’s been quiet — too quiet,” said Matarrese of the lull in the landlord’s activity this spring.
According to a source with knowledge of the landlord’s strategy, the group intends to lay low through the summer while replenishing its war chest in an effort to support the charter amendment ballot measure and landlord-friendly candidates for the fall’s likely contentious mayoral and council campaigns.
Most believe they’ll oppose Councilmember Jim Oddie and, to a lesser extent, Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, the third currently declared candidate for mayor. (Spencer and Matarrese are also running.) Greg McConnell, an Oakland-based housing consultant who had been working with Alamedans in Charge until May, told Alameda Magazine last August that Ezzy Ashcraft and Oddie had angered landlords when they reneged on their support for the 2016 rent stabilization ordinance by voting for the addition of just cause protections a year later. The vote became the impetus for the landlords vowing to raise up to $2 million to fund a petition campaign to repeal the just vote cause action, approve the charter measure this November, and aim to take out pro-tenant councilmembers.
The likelihood that Oddie will be the target of a negative campaign increased greatly after an independent investigation into numerous allegations by former City Manager Jill Keimach found that Oddie violated the city charter by politically interfering with the selection of a new fire chief last year. However, the report, which was released in May, also recommended that the charter provision be revised for clarity by the council or Alameda voters.
Oddie denies any wrongdoing but nonetheless expects landlords to use the report against him. “I’ll be prepared,” said a defiant Oddie. “I don’t think Alameda voters want a real estate/landlord oligarchy in this city. That’s what they have in Russia. People will make their decision based on whether they want a candidate who will protect the poor — the people who can’t afford paying for basic necessities — over the people spending $1 million to help influence an election.”
Ezzy Aschraft also said she will focus on running her own campaign as opposed to worrying about what the landlords might throw up against her. “When it comes to housing issues, rents, homelessness, I really believe that the majority of Alamedans are fair-minded people whether they are owners or renters, they don’t want to see other people suffer,” she said. “You can’t avoid the specter of homelessness; it is everywhere we look. When it comes to the charter amendment, they can throw all that money at it, but at the end of the day, I think most people get the fact that a 5 percent rent increase is pretty steep. But if you have to cower in the corner or choose your words so carefully, you probably ask yourself why you’re running.”
(Under Alameda’s current rent protection ordinance, a landlord may terminate a tenancy with no cause, but the landlord can’t raise the rent for the new tenant by more than 5 percent.)
Joe LoParo, an Alameda Realtor who has worked with Alamedans in Charge, said property owners want what’s best for everyone in the city and rebuts the notion that the property owners who are contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the landlords’ effort are out-of-town special interests. “They may not live in Alameda, but they own property here,” said LoParo. “They have an interest in what happens here.” Powerful statewide pro-landlord groups such as the California Apartment Association and local Realtors do not support Alamedans in Charge, he said, since the charter amendment proposal is technically a form of rent control, which neither group ever supports.
Furthermore, Alameda landlords — and property owners everywhere in California — may have bigger concerns if a statewide ballot measure repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law that limits rent control, is certified for the November ballot. “We have our own battle,” said LoParo. “It’s hovering over everything we’re doing here.”