Oakland Tenants Dispute the Right of U.S. Marshals to Evict Them

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 3 years old.
The tenants in this multi-unit home in Oakland fought an eviction notice from the U.S. Marshals, who became their landlord after the building was seized as part of an asset forfeiture case. (Darwin BondGraham/KQED)

Updated Feb. 22: This story contains a correction.

When the FBI started closing in on Oakland landlord Yaniv Gohar a little over a year ago, his tenants welcomed the news.

Things had been stressful ever since February 2017, when Gohar purchased the multi-unit property on East 11th Street where Emilio Luna and Mirna Sanchez live. Luna and Sanchez said that Gohar showed up in a car with no license plates and demanded that they and the two other households living in the building move out.

According to the tenants, Gohar said he would go to court for an eviction order if necessary. He told them he planned to renovate the old Victorian house that had been divided long ago into four apartments and rent the units out for much higher prices, they said. The tenants refused to leave and cited Oakland’s Just Cause for Eviction ordinance, which provides strong renter protections.

But they said Gohar kept up the pressure by demanding large rent increases. Even though they had rent control, two tenants in the building, Christian Perez and Denia Caballero, agreed to pay significantly more, rather than continue fighting. Perez said he agreed to a $400 increase on top of his $1,000 monthly rent.

Sponsored

But Luna and Sanchez objected. “We complained to the city of Oakland,” said Sanchez in a recent interview. A hearing officer with the city's Rent Adjustment Program blocked Gohar from raising the $600 monthly rent on their studio unit by more than $50.

Afterward, Luna and Sanchez said that Gohar retaliated by ignoring requests to fix their broken stove, provide their building with fire extinguishers, and replace the moldy carpet. City code enforcement records confirm that Luna and Sanchez filed a complaint about the broken stove and other problems.

So when FBI agents knocked on their doors in January 2018 asking about Gohar's activities, the renters assumed that relief from the constant threat of eviction was on its way.

“We always cooperated with them,” said Luna about the FBI’s inquiries.

But all too soon, Luna and the other tenants found themselves facing eviction again — this time from the federal law enforcement officials who took over management of their building. After prosecutors indicted Gohar on criminal charges, they seized his Oakland rental properties. In January, the U.S. Marshals Service, which acts as the custodian of the seized buildings, began moving to evict the renters and sell off the buildings.

The tenants, some of whom have lived there for more than a decade, said it's unfair to be pushed out of their homes despite playing no part in the crimes of which Gohar is accused.

Illegal Slot Machine Ring

It turned out that Gohar was netting hundreds of thousands of dollars a month from a network of illegal video slot machines hidden in smoke shops and liquor stores across Northern California, according to federal prosecutors.

Christian Norgaard, a special agent with the state Bureau of Gambling Control, said in an affidavit that Gohar, an Israeli citizen living in Berkeley, was investing some of the illicit proceeds in Oakland real estate.

In addition to the multi-unit house on East 11th Street in Oakland's Eastlake neighborhood, in 2017 Gohar had also purchased a nearby triplex on 7th Avenue and an uninhabited warehouse on Solano Way.

Agents arrested Gohar on Dec. 8, 2017. Prosecutors argued that Gohar should be held without bond because he was dangerous, owned real estate in foreign countries and might flee the United States.

According to court testimony from FBI Agent Daniel Bryant, Gohar had allegedly threatened to break the legs of a convenience store owner who had cooperated with investigators, calling him an “Arabic asshole.”

Even so, three weeks later Gohar was released on $200,000 bond.

A few days after Gohar got out of jail, a Berkeley police officer spotted him driving recklessly in his 2017 Porsche Panamera, according to a complaint filed by prosecutors. Gohar crashed into two parked cars and “the officer observed one of the Porsche’s wheels fly off the Vehicle,” according to the complaint.

Prosecutors asked a judge to revoke Gohar's bond, but Gohar never showed up to his next hearing, scheduled on Jan. 3, 2017. He disappeared and remains a fugitive.

In February 2018, after Gohar fled, the government seized his Oakland rental properties and the U.S. Marshals took over as the new landlord.

New Landlords Bring New Demands

According to the three households living in the East 11th Street property, the U.S. Marshals delivered new lease agreements in June and told them to sign, or be evicted.

While the leases didn't change the tenants’ rent, they did include new terms. One was that the tenants would have to make and pay for any repairs themselves. Another was that their new landlord, the U.S. Marshals Service, be allowed to enter their apartments with just 12 hours' notice, instead of the 24 hours required under state law. And the leases had one key provision: The marshals could evict the tenants — for any reason — with just 30 days notice.

The two households living in the 7th Avenue building signed the new leases. And Perez and Caballero also signed the agreements. But Luna and Sanchez refused to sign and contacted Jackie Zaneri, a housing attorney with the nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza.

Zaneri said the new leases included several provisions that are illegal under state and local laws, in particular the terms allowing the marshals to evict renters for no cause.

Zaneri sent a letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Khasigian, the prosecutor who originally filed the paperwork to seize the buildings from Gohar, challenging the validity of the new leases the marshals were demanding the tenants sign.

Zaneri wrote that under Oakland's Just Cause ordinance, her clients could not be evicted without substantial grounds, such as failing to pay rent. Moreover, she wrote, Oakland law prohibits landlords from unilaterally changing the terms of a lease agreement and evicting a tenant for refusing to sign it.

Although some of the households did sign the new occupancy agreements with the marshals, Zaneri believes those leases are not enforceable.

“A tenant can’t waive their rights under state and local law,” she said.

Half a year passed after Zaneri contacted Khasigian, and the government didn't take any further action. Zaneri said she thought her letter had caused the government to withdraw its demands.

But last month, armed federal marshals showed up at both properties and handed out eviction notices to all the tenants demanding that they leave by Feb. 24. The marshals told them the buildings were up for sale and they had to move out, Perez said.

Perez, who lives in the East 11th Street building with his two children, said the marshals were an intimidating presence. “We're scared,” he said. “Are they going to arrest us?”

The notices also asked the tenants to notify Kevin Brown, a local real estate agent with Better Homes Realty, when they vacated the property. After Feb. 24, the notices explain, locks will be changed and any possessions left behind will be thrown away. A similar eviction notice was provided to tenants living in the 7th Avenue building.

“I'm glad the tenants came to us rather than taking these threatening notices at face value,” said Zaneri, who has advised the tenants that they have the right to stay in their homes. “State law protections don't allow any landlord to do these sorts of things, and the federal government is no exception.”

Asset Forfeiture

The U.S. Marshals did not respond to specific questions about their attempts to evict the Oakland tenants.

But just days before the eviction deadline, a spokesperson for the agency said they were reversing their decision to evict the tenants from both properties. Notices to rescind the evictions were sent to Zaneri on Feb. 15 and to the tenants on Tuesday.

In a statement, a U.S. Marshals spokesperson said the original notices to vacate were made at the direction of the buyers. “However, both buyers have since reversed their decisions and are allowing the occupants to stay on after the sales go to settlement,” the statement said.

The marshals’ statement did not explain what legal authority allows purchasers of rental housing to direct the government to evict existing tenants. But the statement also explained that the agency routinely enters into “occupancy agreements” with renters who live in buildings that are seized under the asset forfeiture program and that these agreements include 30-day termination clauses.

When the marshals enter into a contract to sell a building, they can issue a 30-day notice for the tenants to vacate the property, the statement said.

“Whether a notice to vacate is issued is determined by the terms of the sales agreement. If the buyer wants the occupant(s) to stay on, then no 30-day notice to vacate is issued,” the statement said.

Zaneri said she thinks that the agency was trying to obtain the highest prices for the buildings. Empty apartment buildings are worth much more than buildings occupied by tenants who have rent control, because it allows a landlord to set rents at the highest levels possible, she said.

A U.S. Marshals' website advertising properties seized through the federal Justice Department's asset forfeiture program contains for-sale listings for both apartment buildings, and real estate site Zillow lists the property as under contract with an asking price of $600,000.

Several phone calls and emails to Khasigian, the U.S. assistant attorney who filed the complaint to seize the Gohar properties, went unreturned.

According to the U.S. Attorney General’s Guidelines on Seized and Forfeited Property, the goal of the asset forfeiture program is to “punish and deter” criminal activity by confiscating property used in the commission of a crime, or acquired through illegal activities.

The program is also a moneymaker for law enforcement agencies.

Through the asset forfeiture program, the government seized $1.4 billion in funds and property last year, including cash, vehicles, boats, firearms and real estate. The U.S. Marshals handle management and sale of real estate seized under the program, and federal and local law enforcement agencies get a share of the revenue, which can be used to pay for law enforcement programs and equipment.

Brown, the realtor with Better Homes Realty helping the government sell both Oakland properties, said he couldn't comment on his role in the transaction without permission from the Marshals Service. He said that he believes the federal government doesn't have to follow state and local housing laws.

But Zaneri disagrees. She said that the U.S. Marshals’ actions were illegal from the start and that the tenants were preparing to file a lawsuit to protect their rights to stay in their homes.

Other housing law experts say that the federal government can’t ignore local eviction laws.

“I know of no authority that gives the U.S. government the ability to circumvent and ignore the application of Oakland’s Just Cause for Eviction ordinance as it attempts to remove these lawful occupants,” said Meghan Gordon, an attorney who is the director of the East Bay Community Law Center’s housing practice.

Regardless of what's legal, the tenants said they want the government to do what's right.

“What we expect from them as the government is something better than a criminal,” said Luna. “We want them to respect our rights and follow the law.”

Sponsored

Correction: This story was updated to include the U.S. Marshals’ decision to cancel the evictions and to include information from a statement provided by the U.S. Marshals after publication.