Robert Gill in front of his art studio in East Oakland. The 71-year-old artist is being evicted from his home of nearly 18 years by a process that tenants' rights activists are calling an unjust loophole in city code. (Gabe Meline/KQED)
Robert Gill has lived in the same place in East Oakland for nearly 18 years.
But now, Gill, a disabled, 71-year-old painter, faces imminent eviction. Tenant rights activists say that the process by which Gill is being ousted from his longtime home highlights landlords' exploitation of a city code enforcement loophole—in short, that a landlord can fail to upkeep a property, and then evict the tenant for it.
Gill, who paints as Rob Trains, moved into the former firehouse at 1357 93rd Avenue in 2001, after he was displaced from another live-work space in San Francisco. In 2012, the multi-unit property sold to Ray Oppenheimer. Following years of disputes, Oppenheimer last year asked the city to determine the legality of Gill’s unit; an inspector responded with instruction to “discontinue use as a living unit,” which Oppenheimer used to justify evicting Gill.
Gill and his attorney Jackie Zaneri contend the eviction was retaliatory; Gill at first reported unpermitted construction in another unit on the property to officials, and complained to Oppenheimer about a lack of heat and other conditions. They say Oppenheimer solicited the “notice of violation” from the city in order to oust his tenant, and declined offers from Safer DIY Spaces—an organization formed after the Ghost Ship fire to help tenants of code-deficient housing—to subsidize the unit’s permitting and renovation on the condition of retaining Gill.
Oppenheimer, a lighting designer who’s worked with West Edge Opera and Shotgun Players, didn’t respond to interview requests. County records show he bought the property for $425,000 with his parents, who later transferred the title to him alone. His attorney, Jonathan Black of Weston Law Group, called the cost of bringing Gill’s unit up to code prohibitively expensive, and cast doubt on Safer DIY Spaces’ estimates. The organization, which includes prominent live-work architect Thomas Dolan, put the cost at $13,000, but Black put it at “six figures.”
“The city won’t allow the residential unit,” Black said, arguing that officials left his client no choice. “I’d never advise a client to use code enforcement to get around just-cause.”
At issue is a section of the city’s just-cause for eviction regulation allowing landlords to withdraw units from the residential market if they’re “unwilling” to correct code violations.
“There’s nothing to stop a landlord from deferring maintenance and then citing code enforcement’s own documentation of the resultant violations as a reason to evict,” said Safer DIY Spaces’ David Keenan.
Zaneri said Centro Legal de la Raza, which serves low-income clients, has recently seen a rash of evictions similar to Gill's, stemming from landlords' own code violations. She called it a “loophole” for landlords to vacate units otherwise subject to tenant protections. It’s concerning, Zaneri said, because code enforcement should be a resource for tenants to hold landlords accountable. “Code-enforcement isn’t supposed to be ordering landlords to evict people unless there’s a life-safety hazard,” she said.
The demand to “discontinue use as a living unit” also contradicts Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Jan. 2017 executive order for officials to avoid displacing tenants of nonconforming housing, which the mayor issued amid concerns about a code-enforcement crackdown following the Ghost Ship fire. An East Bay Expressinvestigation found that most evictions from nonconforming units in the months after the fire followed notices of violation containing language such as “discontinue residential use.”
Darin Ranelletti, the city’s policy director for housing security, said inspectors were told early last year to instead instruct landlords to “legalize conversions” except in life-threatening conditions. Yet officials have continued to issue what critics call de facto eviction orders.
In a June 2017 email to Keenan, reviewed by KQED, Ranelletti wrote that “staff has been instructed to refrain from using the language ‘restore to original use’ on notices pertaining to unpermitted occupancies.” Ranelletti’s email continued, “I agree that this is misleading because the owner can seek the necessary permits and approvals to allow the converted use.”
There is “genuine and real willingness to fix this problem in building and planning leadership,” according to Keenan. “But it’s an entrenched institutional practice with real consequences.”
Gill moved to San Francisco in the 1960s and helped start Project One, considered the city’s first warehouse commune. He worked as a painter, a contractor, an amateur boxer, and canvas stretcher. Until it was demolished in 2001, he lived at the storied Mission District arts space known as 47 Clarion. A series of surgeries in recent years has impaired his sight and mobility, and he supplements his social security income by building canvas frames and selling his collectible belongings on eBay.
For less than $900 month, Gill rents a small apartment and detached art studio from Oppenheimer. Sculptures and model cars rest on most surfaces, and above his bed is an enormous, vibrantly colored painting—his latest. “I showed the lady at the art store a picture of that canvas and said my 28-year-old punk rock neighbor painted it,” he said. “She believed me!”
Gill said he didn’t know his unit lacks approvals until recently. If he had, he wouldn’t have called code enforcement to report Oppenheimer’s unpermitted construction. “Ray knew this place wasn’t up to code,” he said. “He must’ve known about this option all along. Looking back, it seems obvious.” (A 2011 real estate listing alludes to Gill’s unit lacking residential clearance).
Avoiding a trial, the parties reached a settlement earlier this week. Gill will receive five months free rent as well as a relocation payment, the total value of which he put at $30,000. If Oppenheimer brings Gill’s unit into compliance, he’s required to offer it back at comparable rent. By then, though, Gill isn’t sure where he’ll be, and he worries that Oppenheimer will instead move into the unit himself, or else offer it as a temporary rental through Airbnb.
“My friends have been asking what I’ll do for a year now, and I just tell them to knock it off because I really don’t know yet,” Gill said. “I thought I’d spend the rest of my life here.”