Landlords Strike Back

Landlords Strike Back


Heather Reed

Alameda landlords successfully blocked the city’s new tenant-backed just cause eviction law—and started a new war in the process.

Heather Reed’s Facebook Live video in June had the feel of cinéma vérité. She approached a signature gatherer who was talking with a shopper outside a grocery store at Alameda South Shore Center. “Do you know what you’re signing,” Reed asked the shopper as the woman clutched her grocery basket. “Did he tell you [the petition] is anti-renter? Are you a renter?”

The confused woman quickly walked away without signing the landlord-backed petition, which called for a repeal of the Alameda City Council’s recent decision to add just cause tenant protections to an existing city rent ordinance.

Other videos posted by Alameda tenant advocates on social media showed numerous instances in which it appeared as if potential signers were about to be cajoled into adding their names to a petition that may not have been in their best interests. In other cases, the signature gatherers, mainly hailing from outside Alameda and employed by a Sacramento-based firm hired by Alameda landlords, responded belligerently to the frequent appearances of renters’ activists who asked pointed questions about their pitches to residents.

Two dozen requests for assistance were made to Alameda police in June, according to the department, but no one was cited. However, in July, Alamedans filed 51 sworn affidavits alleging that signature gatherers had misrepresented the intent of the landlords’ referendum petition. A common complaint was that signature gatherers had lied to voters, telling them the landlords’ referendum petition favored rent control, when, in fact, the opposite was true.

Written complaints also alleged that signature gatherers made derogatory comments to tenants. One allegedly called a person a “libtard, commie, Democrat,” while another told a voter to “quit acting like a stupid liberal and sign the petition.” Another 120 residents formally asked the city clerk to remove their names from the petition, saying they had signed under false pretenses.

The signature gatherers’ actions got the city council’s attention, leading to a press release offering assistance to others who may been victims of misrepresentation. The city also turned the issue over to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for a criminal investigation. However, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri said in an interview that he was informed by the DA that prosecutors would not seek criminal charges.

The landlords’ petition gathered more than 7,000 signatures, roughly 30 percent more than needed. So even if the false misrepresentation claims were true, said Assistant City Attorney Andrico Penick, the affidavits and complaints represented only a sliver of the total signatures, thereby falling well short of what was needed to invalidate the petition.

The city clerk later certified the referendum, and councilmembers will decide in early September whether to rescind their vote in May to include just cause provisions, call for a special election later this year, or schedule the issue for the June or November 2018 election.

In June, shortly after the council added just cause evictions to its existing rent ordinance, veteran Bay Area political consultant John Whitehurst gave a rousing message for disgruntled local landlords at the Elks Lodge who were clamoring to fight back against the tenant-backed just cause eviction law: “Who’s in charge? Activists or Alamedans?”

At the meeting, Whitehurst noted that the campaign would require landlords to pay a hefty price for a signature-gathering campaign. Well-known Alameda landlord and property manager Don Lindsay made a simple fundraising pitch for each to open his or her purse strings, and people did. The landlords’ group, Alamedans in Charge, raised $113,000 in less than three weeks in June, according to semi-annual campaign finance reports filed on July 31. During the same time, the group spent $130,700, including $64,900 in debts for consulting and legal bills. In all, the group reported $47,206 in cash on hand at mid-year.

By contrast, the Alameda Renters Coalition, reported raising just $6,991 in the first half of 2017 and having only $2,773 in cash on hand.

Landlords involved in the signature drive said the effort was locally based and not financed by outside special interests. However, campaign finance records show that a number of large donors to the Alameda campaign were San Francisco apartment building landlords—contributors who also helped finance last year’s landlord-backed ballot initiative in Alameda.

Whitehurst’s comments also shed light on the landlords’ strategy to repeal just cause. In the presentation at the Elks Lodge, Whitehurst admitted the landlords’ own polling revealed that Alamedans support rent control in large numbers. To get around this, Whitehurst advocated for never mentioning just cause in the campaign. Instead, he urged landlords to focus on the benefits of Measure L1—last year’s successful ballot measure that affirmed the council’s previously approved rent stabilization ordinance.

Some landlords, though, were not initially interested in finessing the issue and backed a complete repeal and ban on any type of rent control in Alameda. The anger, according to Greg McConnell, an Oakland-based lobbyist and consultant for Alamedans in Charge, was precipitated by a belief held by some landlords that councilmembers had “reneged” on a compromise deal hammered out in early 2016.

“We worked very closely with the city council, had dozen and dozens of meetings with them and the mayor to try and figure out a plan that would help with Alameda’s rising rents and perception of a housing crisis,” said McConnell. “And we came up with an ordinance that not everybody loved, but addressed the issues in a fair way.”

The deal, according to McConnell, included the landlords agreeing to pay relocation payments to renters who get evicted in exchange for no mention of just cause in the ordinance. Also included in the deal was a loose 5 percent cap on rent increases annually. The council approved the ordinance in March 2016, and Alameda voters affirmed it in November as Measure L1.

But all that changed for some Alameda landlords in April, said McConnell, when Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft advocated for including just cause protections during the one-year review period of the city’s rent ordinance. “Many of us were shocked that Marilyn, who we worked diligently on this, would be supporting just cause,” said McConnell. “We felt they were reneging on us, and the only option is to take it back to the voters.”

Under just cause, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants without a valid reason—such as failure to pay rent. In an interview, Ezzy Ashcraft denied making a deal with the landlords. “I guess it’s in the eyes of the beholder,” she said. “I don’t make secret backroom deals. We said we would reopen the rent ordinance a year later to see if it was working. And that was the beauty of it.”

Ezzy Ashcraft said her support for just cause is a response to horror stories she’s heard from residents over the past year. She added, “Greg has his constituents that he’s representing, and I have mine. I’m representing in Alameda.”

In other words, Alameda appears destined for yet another brutal war between landlords and tenants groups. Exactly when the battle will commence will be the subject of a pivotal council meeting in early September. One option is for the council to call a special election. But the cost could be prohibitive, and the timing could be problematic. A special election must be scheduled 88 days after it is called, said Alameda City Clerk Lara Weisinger. In this case, a vote-by-mail-only election would fall sometime during the busy holiday season in early December.

The council could choose instead to place the referendum on the June 2018 primary ballot. But that also would be costly because Alameda does not hold municipal elections in June.

Eric Strimling, a spokesperson for the Alameda Renters Coalition, said the group would like voters to tackle the issue soon. That’s because the landlords’ referendum petition blocked just cause from going into effect. Strimling said renters are in danger of being evicted for no reason.

But the battle-hardened Alameda tenant activists are remaining vigilant. That’s because in July, Alameda landlords began circulating a second petition—this one seeking to lock into the city charter the original rent stabilization ordinance approved by the council in March 2016. Some members of the renters coalition say the latest batch of paid signature gatherers appear to have been coached better than the first group, but they continue to witness instances of false statements.

Reed is also back at it, keeping the signature gatherers accountable and holding online webinars to alert others of the petitioners’ playbook. For her, it’s all about fairness. “If you believe in what the landlords are offering, then sign it,” she said. “But don’t be dirty about it because these are people’s homes and lives at stake.”