Will 2019 be the Year of the Tenant in Alameda?

Fresh off their defeat of Measure K, tenants plan to push the city council’s new progressive majority to establish rent control and reinstate just cause eviction protections.


Mari Perez-Ruiz is president of the Alameda Renters Coalition.

Photo courtesy of Mari Perez-Ruiz

Cheri Johansen beamed over a chart of the election results. “We won in every precinct,” she said, referring to Alameda tenants’ successful defeat of Measure K in the November election. The measure, which was backed by landlords’ groups and sought to enshrine Alameda’s weak and labyrinthine tenant protection ordinance in the city charter, was soundly rejected by 60.3 percent of Island voters.

Tenant advocates organized a broad coalition to keep the weak rent control law out of the charter, but in 2019, they aren’t resting on their laurels. Progressives of all stripes are preparing to roll out a shared policy agenda that could include not only better tenant protections, but a living wage proposal and a push for more housing — emboldened by a friendly city council and new mayor at the helm.

“I always tell my kids that you have to fight for every inch, because you can always lose half of what you gained,” added Johansen, a field coordinator with the newly formed Alameda Justice Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, tenant advocates, religious groups, and racial justice activists.

These groups decided in 2018 to coordinate their efforts after two major losses: Voters opted for weaker rent control in 2016, and the following year, landlords forced the city council’s hand with signature-gathering effort that nullified newly enacted just cause eviction protections. Afterward, Alameda renters appeared to be on the ropes, but activists made a strategic decision to delay their push against no-cause evictions and focus all their resources to defeat Measure K. With the broad coalition united under the Justice Alliance, tenants didn’t just bounce back — they swept.

“For a long time, real estate interests ran City Hall, and that’s just politics,” said Catherine Pauling, an organizer with the Alameda Renters Coalition. She hopes Measure K can serve as a referendum on the Island’s social values. “The story is: We have heart,” she said.

With the pending expiration of the city’s toothless tenant protection law, also known as Ordinance 3148, renter groups see a clear opportunity this year to strengthen rent control while reinstating just cause protections. Under just cause, tenants cannot be evicted without a sufficient reason — such as failure to pay rent. Both Oakland and Berkeley have just cause laws.

“We see this as a vote for just cause, with a progressive council that can push that forward,” said Mari Perez-Ruiz, current president of the Alameda Renters Coalition. “It’s our job as community groups to remind our elected officials that we the people decided, and we decided that we want rent control and just cause.”

Newly elected mayor, Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, and re-elected councilmember, Jim Oddie, supported the original just cause ordinance before landlords overturned it through the threat of a referendum process. They are joined on the five-member council by two other progressives, Malia Vella and John Knox White, who was the leading vote-getter in the November election.

The story of the defeat of Measure K in 2018 was as much about landlord hubris as a victory of the progressive coalition they galvanized. Promoted by the ominously named Alamedans In Charge PAC, Measure K paradoxically tried to sell a convoluted measure supporting weak rent control, while at the same time fomenting a conservative backlash against it. In a letter to fellow landlords uncovered by the East Bay Express, rental property owner Don Lindsey drew a hard line in the sand, asserting that Alamedans In Charge would “wrest control” of the Island from the “far left” back to “the middle.” That battle cry united common enemies.

photo by pat mazzera

Catherine Pauling is an organizer with the ARC.

The Justice Alliance was in large part buoyed by more established groups such as the Alameda Labor Council and the Alameda Firefighters IAFF Local 689. “The firefighters got people to show up to canvas for No on K,” said Laura Thomas, an organizer with Renewed Hope Housing Advocates, a pro-affordable housing nonprofit in Alameda. “If we couldn’t get people to show up, they did.”

While Measure K churned big donations into a glossy mailer campaign, largely from major property owners both on and off the Island, the grassroots No on K campaign knocked on doors, tabled at farmers markets, and educated often-confused voters.

“The No on K people were people. They were all over the place. Whereas the Yes on K people, where were they? Where did you see them in public?” Thomas said. “There was no public debate where they stood up and defended it.”

Ironically, Measure K’s complexity made it easier for opponents to make their case. “The Measure K narrative really had to twist and turn a lot of facts to get to something people would be OK with,” said Gaylon Parsons, a volunteer for No on K. “The No on K folks just had to say, ‘This keeps you in your home, this keeps your neighbor in your home, and we’re not done yet.’ No twisting of facts required.”

No on K’s talking points spread contagiously through social media and informal networks. Local historian/journalist/activist Rasheed Shabazz even released a viral rap music video excoriating Alamedans In Charge and Measure K in rhyming verses.  

While out canvassing, Shabazz met neighbors who had already mailed in their Yes on K votes but grew curious when they recognized him from the music video. “When I explained it to them, they asked if they could change their vote,” he said.

With free rein to shape the terms of debate, Thomas explained, renters and union organizers found common cause in the framing of “a classic fight of labor versus capital.”

“High rents are absolutely a labor issue,” said Michael Henneberry, a member of the Alameda Labor Council. Raising wages and stabilizing rents, Henneberry argued, formed complementary policy goals that brought laborers and renters together in the housing crisis. And labor, too, has its sights set on progress. “Our minimum wage increase was good; a living wage is the next step,” Henneberry added.

For renters, Pauling explained, wage and housing growth should work hand in hand. “Families are doubling up in houses. The new density is happening, whether you do the construction or not. By not doing it, you just get inflated prices and rents. And if you don’t have minimum wage and growing employment, that adds to the problem,” Pauling said. “I’m hoping that new growth, like on Alameda Point, will encourage labor-intensive services like restaurants and hotels, that will encourage higher wages.”

For now, it’s clear that the balance of power has shifted in favor of tenants in Alameda. And it may have lasting power — after all, Alameda is still a majority-renter city.

“We aren’t radical,” Cheri Johansen asserted. “Many of us who were engaged are seniors, because this is our survival — having a home. There’s no justification for no-cause evictions when you’re evicting seniors.”

Or, as Shabazz put it in his rap: How can everyone truly belong here / when over half the population has to live in fear?