A California tenants rights group filed a class-action lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court against billion-dollar property firm Mosser Companies on Tuesday, alleging their staff has repeatedly harassed tenants by, among other things, repeatedly entering their homes under false pretenses.
Tenants Group Sues Property Firm Mosser in Test of Oakland Pandemic Protections
The suit from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment argues that the harassment violates new tenant protections passed in Oakland in 2020.
The suit seeks penalties of $1,000 per violation, per tenant. It also asks the court to force Mosser to stop.
The harassment outlined in the suit includes entering apartments to unnecessarily check for pests once a week, throwing away a mobility scooter belonging to a tenant with multiple sclerosis and billing tenants improperly for utilities.
Meanwhile, some tenants say Mosser has neglected their buildings by failing to get rid of mold and cockroaches, and failing to repair elevators, doors and locks.
"This is about a company that has made a business model based on pushing rent control tenants out of their units through harassment," said Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney with ACCE. "It's really problematic normally and stressful for people to have the landlord constantly coming in for no reason, especially when the landlord has keys."
Mosser did not respond to a request for comment.
ACCE thinks it has a strong case, partially due to an overhaul of the Oakland Tenant Protection Ordinance approved by the Oakland City Council in July last year.
First created in 2014, the law was updated with a suite of new provisions at the beginning of the pandemic, with tenant advocates arguing they were needed in the face of mass unemployment, which could lead to more landlords threatening to push tenants out.
The update to the tenant protection ordinance increased penalties for harassment and expanded some definitions of that harassment, including shutting off utilities. Landlords are also not allowed to change the terms of the tenancy, a key provision of the suit.
Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who authored the original ordinance and its update last year, said years of litigation revealed it needed to be strengthened to better protect tenants.
“We realized that there were more than just 15 or 16 harassing types of behaviors that could be engaged in by landlords,” he said, “so we added some and clarified how enforcement works. We wanted to make sure it was as strong as legally possible to make sure people aren’t pushed out.”
Harassment is a common tactic deployed by landlords in the Bay Area, advocates say, where real estate makes for big money. Veritas, San Francisco's biggest landlord with more than 200 properties, came under fire in 2019 from its tenants for allegedly harassing them to push them from their homes.
"I think that this will be the first large lawsuit (in California) that is just about, 'You are not allowed to harass people,' " said Simon-Weisberg. Not many cities in California have anti-harassment laws strong enough to make this litigation possible — in California at least, the only other city with such a strong law is Berkeley, she said.
Los Angeles is in the process of passing such a law now. While some lawsuits tack on harassment allegations to other major allegations, Simon-Weisberg said, this suit is unique because the bulk of the allegations center around harassment.
The case is important because it may defang a commonly used tactic by landlords to oust tenants without actively evicting them.
“The idea is, a strong law should deter bad behavior,” Kalb said.
And while he declined to comment specifically on ACCE’s suit against Mosser, Kalb added, “There will always be some very bad actors who don’t care what the law says and they’re going to flout it and abuse it, and try to harm residents and kick them out for their own selfish greed. And that’s when we have to take them to court.”
Djamila Boudjema lives in a Mosser-owned building near Lake Merritt with her husband and child. She says Mosser staff have repeatedly entered her home since 2016.
“It was so much stress," she said. "It's just like every day, they say, 'We have an inspection coming' ... it was too much."
Boudjema said that Mosser also began billing them for their electricity bill starting in April, something the company hadn't done before. It took her completely by surprise. She's been a tenant in the building since 2011, before Mosser owned it, and had never paid an electricity bill.
In its suit, ACCE alleges Mosser is improperly billing tenants at Boudjema's building for electricity because the prior owner advertised the units as "all utilities paid," and factored the cost of paying utilities into the price Mosser paid to acquire the building.
Neighbors speaking to KQED say the majority of the building's tenants are immigrants from Algeria. They told KQED they formed a community together, sharing traditional foods like couscous, or sharing religious holidays together. Some are Muslim and attend the Islamic Center of Oakland for prayer.
Boudjema, who is also from Algeria, says she suspects Mosser underestimated immigrants and assumed they would be fooled by the company’s tactics.
"I have a feeling that Mosser does what they do, what they're doing now, because we as a community there don't know that much about law," she said. "That we can't stand for our rights."
But that assumption would be wrong, she said. Boudjema helped organize the tenants in her 84-unit building to push back.
Said Koulougli and Karima Miloudi live in the building with their 7-year-old son and are also among those neighbors organizing against Mosser. Miloudi has multiple sclerosis, making her more vulnerable to COVID-19. The couple say Mosser's staff repeatedly entered their home before and throughout the pandemic, raising fear that she was exposed to the virus.
"The COVID-19 is not a play, not like a joke. And we see people are dying and thousands of people are passing away," Koulougi said. He especially worried for his wife. "I protect her from strangers," when it comes to COVID, he said.
The extra utility charges hit the couple hard, too.
Koulougli’s work painting and remodeling apartments fell during the pandemic, and Miloudi is a student at CSU East Bay studying to be an accountant. With work scarce and school a priority, those utility charges piled onto their rent, which itself was already piling up.
In December last year, when Mosser had failed to repair an elevator on time, Miloudi said, she left her mobility scooter in the building’s garage so she could be helped upstairs to the family’s apartment. Mosser staff threw the scooter into the trash, damaging it beyond repair.
It was worth more than $1,000, she said. While her medical insurance replaced it, she went a month without being able to leave her home independently.
“The scooter is like my feet. I used it to go outside to get fresh air, to get around, to go shopping. It’s not easy to stay a month at home,” she said. “It was very stressful for me.”
Their studio apartment is $864 a month, which Koulougi says is a likely reason Mosser would want his family to leave.
Miloudi says, "I would just ask for more consideration, more respect."