Rent Hikes Hit Raw Nerves

Scuffle in council chambers typifies tensions in Alameda and elsewhere in the Bay Area regarding rental prices.


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A November council meeting turned into a violent scuffle.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

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When Eli Hudson’s landlord raised her rent by $200 in May, she was surprised but counted herself lucky. She and her family had been living in their home without a rent increase since 2008—a generous break for a family with only one source of income. Coughing up an additional $200 each month would be tough, but all things considered, it wasn’t bad.

Two months later, Hudson’s rent was raised by another 50 percent—making for a total increase from $2,200 to $3,600.

Hudson doesn’t count herself lucky anymore, nor do other Alameda renters who have been handed massive, sudden rent increases or 30- and 60-day eviction notices. Alameda, like virtually every other city in the Bay Area, is enduring a red-hot real estate market, and housing providers are trying to ride the wave.

“It’s the Wild West out here,” said Catherine Pauling, one of the leaders of the Alameda Renters Coalition. “There’s no regulation, and the wolves are coming in.”

A special City Council meeting in November on rising rents and a proposed temporary moratorium on rental increases and evictions without just cause turned into a Wild West show, blood and all, when renters attempted to enter the full council chambers to counter a parade of landlords who spoke against the moratorium. Assistant City Manager Bob Haun tried to keep renter Bob Davis, a music professor who teaches at City College of San Francisco, from entering, and a scuffle ensued with both sustaining injuries as they fell. Police officers arrested Davis and renters’ advocate John Klein, who reportedly lashed out at an officer who blocked his way. Renters were angry the chambers were filled with many housing providers when they arrived and wanted to be sure they, too, were heard. The mayor called a recess and then arranged for renters and landlords to speak at the marathon meeting that lasted until 2 a.m.

 

Editor's Note: This video contains profane language and blood.

 

In the end, the City Council passed a 65-day moratorium on rent increases that meet or exceed 8 percent. It also agreed to halt no-cause evictions for 65 days to address serious concerns among renters over their rapidly rising rents. The moratorium applies to rents in multifamily housing built before 1995, about 70 percent of Alameda’s rental stock. It does not affect single-family housing or condominiums. Renters occupy about 55 percent of Alameda households, and their incomes are not keeping pace with increased rental costs, according to study consultant BAE Urban Economics.

In September, the council passed two rent-related ordinances linked to the Rent Review Advisory Committee, although renters’ advocates were far from satisfied, saying they were too little too late. The committee mediates disputes between tenants and housing providers in Alameda. It makes recommendations to landlords, but it is unable to enforce its suggestions. The first ordinance requires landlords to properly notify tenants of rent increases and to attend a committee hearing if requested by a tenant. Refusing to comply in either case would result in the rent increase being void. The other ordinance formalized the responsibilities of the committee.

Angela Hockabout, the former head of the renters coalition, once opposed rent control. But she began to see it more favorably after she was presented with a $450 rent increase in 2013. Investigating her options, she discovered that she could either appeal the increase to the committee, or she could negotiate directly with her landlord. Pressed for time, she chose the later.

It’s a dilemma many renters in Alameda face. Going to the committee may prompt a landlord to lower the rent increase. But it takes time and energy, and, in the end, a landlord may not budge. Negotiating without mediation may produce better results, but not all renters are up to this task.

“It was uncomfortable,” Hockabout said. “I felt like I had to prove that I was a worthy individual to stay in their apartment. You’re trying to deal with the uncertainty of staying in your house, then trying to figure out plan B. What am I going to do if my landlord won’t negotiate?”

Still, hundreds of tenants go to the committee for help in reducing their rent, and sometimes they receive it. Jeff Cambra—an attorney who volunteers as a mediator for renters and landlords—has attended numerous committee hearings. He said that in his experience, they are helpful because landlords are sometimes unaware of the impact increased rents have on residents.

“It doesn’t mean they won’t give them a rent increase,” Cambra said. “But it will be a more thoughtful rent increase.”

But even a thoughtful reduction in a rent increase can be too much.

“If they’re looking at 30 percent and the RRAC says will you take 10 percent, what choice do you have?” Pauling said.

The coalition, the committee, and various housing providers have tried to negotiate a threshold for rent increases that the committee can address. The landlords want 10 percent; the coalition wants 5 percent.

At the moment, 10 percent isn’t an unusual increase to see if you’re renting in Alameda. According to a rent survey recently released by the hyper-local news site Action Alameda News, two-bedroom units—which are the most heavily represented type of residential unit in the survey data—experienced an average of 12 percent increase in rents for 2015.

Don Lindsey, a longtime Alameda real estate agent, said that high rents reflect the high cost of maintenance on older buildings. “We can show you the horrendous costs to replace roofs and rotten sewers and other things to maintain these buildings,” Lindsey said. “Our housing stock is older; it needs a lot of attention.”

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