Carlos Archuleta and Sandra Macias stand outside the home they rent in Castro Valley, an unincorporated area where county eviction protections will soon end, on March 14, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
During the pandemic, Alameda County supervisors approved some of the strongest protections in California for tenants facing evictions. But last month, the board abruptly changed course — rejecting a slate of proposals designed to keep renters in their homes.
The turn comes amid backlash from property owners that could signal future resistance statewide, some tenant and landlord advocates say.
“What it feels like is really a turning back of a lot of work and conversations, a lot of hope and trust,” said Leo Esclamado, an organizer with the community group My Eden Voice, which lobbied hard to extend renter protections in the county.
The measures would have banned landlords from doing criminal background checks on potential tenants, created a rental registry meant to help the county enforce code violations and rent-control laws, and only allowed "just cause" evictions for things like not paying rent or violating lease terms.
Tenants rights advocates and county housing department staff are reeling from the decisions, which they said signal a profound philosophical shift. Meghan Gordon, who runs the East Bay Community Law Center’s housing program, said the board appeared to be reacting to landlords’ complaints without consideration of tenants' needs.
“They have lost sight of planning for the realities and implications of their decisions,” she said. “There's no plan for moving forward, and there's no discussion of what could happen to the community.”
“I understand that the landlord lobby has a loud voice and the financial backing, but our elected leaders still have a duty to protect the most vulnerable residents in our community,” she said. “This will directly result in an immediate rise in homelessness.”
The board’s about-face follows the recent deaths of two of its members, Wilma Chan and Richard Valle, who both championed tenants’ causes. While Valle’s seat remains unfilled, Chan’s replacement, Lena Tam, who abstained from voting on the three ordinances, has proved friendlier to real-estate interests.
“I want to make sure that what we're putting in place is not a solution in search of a problem,” Tam said of her decision, noting that California’s Tenant Protection Act of 2019 already places limits on evictions and rent hikes. She said she’d like to see a revised version of the tenant protection measures with changes that are more palatable to landlords.
Tenant advocates have accused Tam of bowing to the interests of property-owner groups after receiving campaign contributions from them, an allegation she disputes.
According to campaign finance records, Tam received at least $34,000 — or roughly 13% of total contributions to her campaign last year — from real-estate interests, and got an additional boost from the California Apartment Association, which raised over $241,000 to defeat her rival, Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
Russell Lowery, executive director of the California Rental Housing Association, which represents around 24,000 landlords statewide, said there has been a sea change in how property owners are responding to public policy.
“It's a matter of survival for them to show up, explain their business to elected officials and get a hearing,” he said. “No one wants to be at a city council meeting at 8:30 [p.m.] protesting a rental ordinance. But it's become necessary to our business.”
Lowery said he has seen attendance surge at the association’s monthly organizing meetings, where landlords receive advocacy training. And he said more property owners are now paying attention to state and local policy proposals and meeting with lawmakers.
“We've just seen across all avenues that are available to us an increased level of activity,” Lowery said. He noted that the association filed multiple lawsuits challenging COVID eviction bans around the state, and its members recently sued the city of Los Angeles to block new measures enacted before its local moratorium ended.
But some tenant advocates said this is just business as usual for landlord groups: Wherever tenants are organizing for stronger protections, property owner associations show up to fight them.
“If you see where they are going, it's [to] places tenants have been organizing for several years,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute (ACCE), a tenants rights group. “So they're trying to take the power back from the community.”
Still, Lowery said property owners are getting more traction now with lawmakers.
“There's a renewed sense of urgency years into the pandemic, years into an eviction moratorium,” he said. “It gets easier for people to understand that no business [can] stay open without revenue coming in.”
As the pandemic wore on, property owners in Alameda County became increasingly frustrated with supervisors’ refusal to consider changes to the moratorium, said Joshua Howard, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association. Last year, the group sued the county to end the moratorium and has encouraged landlords to advocate against it.
“Housing providers have been trying to speak out,” Howard said. “They've sent thousands of letters, made thousands of phone calls.”
For Chris Moore, who owns property in Oakland and unincorporated parts of Alameda County, and who sits on the board of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, the Board of Supervisors' shift on the issue is a refreshing change.
“They are listening to both sides,” he said. “That really was not happening before.”
Board President Nate Miley argues that supervisors helped create the conditions for a backlash by refusing to ease the eviction ban months ago.
“To try to push other tenant-protection measures through when you have the strongest eviction moratorium in place, I just don't think that's being reasonable,” he said.
Miley voted in favor of the ordinance barring criminal background checks and supported extending legal services, but abstained from voting on the other two measures. Supervisors Tam and David Haubert abstained on all four items, effectively killing the proposals for now.
“It breaks our heart as a community that worked so hard for so long,” said Carlos Archuleta, a renter in unincorporated Castro Valley who advocated for the measures. “Basically, special interests bought a seat and took that vote from us.”
Centro Legal de la Raza Executive Director Monique Berlanga said she was particularly surprised by the supervisors’ decision to defund the tenant and homeowner legal services program.
There are now 27 attorneys in the county who provide free eviction defense and other housing-centered legal services to tenants and homeowners in under-resourced communities, up from just six in 2017, before the Housing Secure program was funded, according to Centro Legal de la Raza, which administers it. Since the program's inception, the program has served nearly 3,000 residents.
“Unless there is some type of new funding added by the county really quickly over the next few months, the only tenants in this county who will have access to legal services are probably tenants in Oakland and Berkeley,” which already offer access to some city-funded resources, she said.
Miley, who voted to continue funding the program, is hopeful the contract will come back to the board in a few weeks, when county staff present options for keeping tenants housed and compensating landlords for lost rent after the moratorium ends.
“It was shocking to me. I had no idea,” he said of his colleagues’ decision to stop funding the program. “I think it serves the public interest.”
The tenant protection ordinances will come back eventually, too, Miley said, likely with amendments that property owners pushed for, like carve-outs for single-family homes and duplexes.
Despite this latest setback for tenants in the county, ACCE's Simon-Weisberg said the pandemic helped motivate tenants across the state to fight for expanded rights. And that movement, she said, is still strong.
“[Landlord groups] have their lobbyists turning out all over the state,” she said. “But what I think is important is tenants are turning out all over the state asking for protections.”
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