ALAMEDA CITY COUNCIL | ANALYSIS | It may have taken more than three hours to pin down the details, but Alameda’s immediate 65-day moratorium on rent increases and evictions will keep renters in their places through the holiday season. What comes next for alleviating growing fears across the island of brutal rent hikes and 60-day notices, is unclear, especially since the stopgap measure unanimously passed early Thursday morning by the Alameda City Council came after more than a year of inaction.
Meanwhile, city staff is now tasked with bringing back addition options for the council to consider, likely in the new year. They include a just cause ordinance and new rules for the Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC). But, neither is likely to appease renter’s groups, nor give solace to Alameda renters at-large. Catherine Pauling, a leader for the Alameda Renters Coalition, quickly criticized portions of the council’s new directions to staff just minutes after the seven and a half hour meeting. A possible ordinance specifically outlining the justifications for a landlord to evict a renter was met more positively by the Alameda Renters Coalition Thursday morning. While a just cause ordinance appears to generally have support on the council, proposed enhancements may have difficulty gaining inclusion.
The insertion of language by Councilmember Tony Daysog to look at requiring landlords to pay relocation fees to renters upon eviction was met with major doubts from Councilmember Jim Oddie. A proposal by Daysog last month for a 45-day moratorium included similar relocation fee language. At Wednesday night’s special meeting on rising rents, Daysog often used a $3,500 fee as an example for reimbursing renters evicted from their places. Oddie countered the fee could be used as a pretext for evicting renters and replacing them with higher rent-paying tenants, similar to the Ellis Act. Other councilmembers also voiced some skepticism. “I have a visceral reaction to that,” said Oddie. “It’s social cleansing. Here take some money and get out of here.” Daysog disagreed and, instead, said the relocation fee will make landlords think twice before evicting their tenants.
A bit more complicated is direction from the council to further revamp the RRAC. Less than two months ago, the council decided to require landlords to attend hearings brought forth by their tenants or forfeit the ability to raise rents for a year. But, quickly some councilmembers said the ordinance had no teeth. Later, the renters coalition argued the existing RRAC is landlord-friendly and too often approves 10 percent rent hikes as compromises, which the group believes is already too high.
Under a proposed amendment led by Oddie, the RRAC may be allowed to limit increases to 8 percent. Whereas, the current setup is driven by renters who want to protest rent increases of any amount, the potential new rules would put the onus of landlords to seek approval from the RRAC for any rent hikes over 8 percent during a given year. In addition, city staff was also directed to provide a secondary proposal that would allow mediation in cases over the 8 percent threshold and then binding arbitration if there is no agreement. Such a proposal would not be rent control, said the city attorney’s office, since no specific ceiling for landlords to raise rents would be included, such as a limit on rent increases tied annually to the Consumer Price Index.
The question of rent control may ultimately be the endgame for Alameda’s growing housing crisis. A sense of class warfare is quickly becoming more evident as the City Council makes incremental moves on rent and the violent episode involving a police officer and a 68-year-old renter Wednesday night who was throw to the ground at City Hall and bloodied become symbols for the divide on the island. And landowners may still give renters ammunition for their cause going forward.
Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft last month referenced the notion growing in Alameda of a community at war with itself. On Wednesday, she added, “I don’t want to toss landlords and tenants against each other.” But when landlords filled the City Council Chambers Wednesday evening its set a tone and later some were rudely snickered under the breathe as renters offered stories of sky-high rent hikes. The atmosphere was significantly different after dozens of members of the Alameda Renters Coalition threatened to storm the council chambers for an opportunity to speak. A noticeable unease was then evident among the remaining landlords who stuck around for the council’s comments. Ultimately blood was spilled at City Hall by an overzealous police officer who may have also risked numerous injuries to others in that hallway, including a number of elderly women who were pushed over by the takedown of renter Bob Davis. Notably, there was no mention of the violent act by the City Council, but sympathy offered for the hip injury sustained to Public Works Director Bob Haun, who, according to one video, appeared to have triggered the entire incident by pushing renter Bob Davis to the ground.
With an increasingly effective grassroots organization like the Alameda Renters Coalition which also carries a revolutionary bent, the meme of law enforcement protecting wealthy landowner’s interest is powerful. A strong whiff of populism is already evident among all Alameda renters. Furthermore, many are fueled by high anxiety over their ability to keep living in Alameda. Worse for the status quo, the Alameda Renters Coalition is making significant noise, but most of these renters are clearly political outsiders. In addition, keep in mind a majority of Alamedans are renters. Politically, government inaction coupled with public anxiety multiplied by an upset populace equals a chain reaction leading to major change, like a ballot measure next year calling for rent control. It’s the nuclear option some have warned landlords to avoid. It may become unavoidable.
There is word the Alameda Renters Coalition is working toward that option. Getting such a measure on the ballot would be no problem. Getting it approved by voters would require hard work. And its success would hand Alameda an interesting historical footnote. The populist upheaval that led to the passage of Measure A in 1972 to limit construction of multi-family housing, one of the factors that has led the city to its current housing crunch, could be negated by a similar grassroots effort. This time to pass rent control.