Council takes steps on rents issues

Council takes steps on rents issues

Michele Ellson
Alameda City Council

Correction: The Alamedan misstated Mayor Trish Spencer's position on rent increases. Spencer said she supported reviewing a rent increase threshold for cases submitted to the Rent Review Advisory Committee, not a ceiling on rent increases. The Alamedan regrets the error.

City Council members opted early Wednesday to move forward with a set of recommendations for strengthening the city committee that mediates rent disputes – and, over the objections of Mayor Trish Spencer, to consider gathering data on the rent market here and in other cities to inform discussion about additional steps the city could take to protect renters.

The council voted unanimously to work toward implementing recommendations to do more to notify tenants about the existence of the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee and to compel their participation in committee hearings to resolve rent disputes, to expedite hearings if needed and to enforce state law prohibiting retaliation against tenants who exercise their rights.

The council also agreed to consider whether to create a minimum threshold a rent increase must meet for a mediation session to be set, a point the community group didn’t agree to recommend.

The group did not recommend, and the council did not consider on Tuesday, putting rent controls in place.

Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese said they wanted staff to look into what it would take to gather additional data about the scope and impact of rising rents here and the impact of rent controls in local cities that have put them in place. Councilman Jim Oddie cast the deciding vote to move forward with that effort.

Spencer, a renter here for 15 years, said she wanted to take action on the community discussion group’s recommendations and move on. On the campaign trail, she said she thought the rent committee was doing a good job addressing rents issues.

"I'll be curious what this costs, but it's going to be very time consuming," Spencer said of the possible data collection effort.

Daysog, who presented some U.S. Census data showing that the amount of renters’ income devoted to their housing costs is rising, abstained from the vote.

Back in September, the City Council voted 3-2 to set aside city staff’s recommendation to set up a city-sponsored task force that would generate data on local rents and the impacts of rising rents in favor of a community-driven process run by a local attorney and mediator. The group held three public forums and a series of behind-the-scene meetings involving a select group of stakeholders.

Council members praised the group’s leader, Jeff Cambra, for bringing renters and landlords together to discuss the issue of rising rents and the challenges of owning and maintaining rental properties. But some noted that the group had been charged with gathering the data the task force was supposed to collect and that this work hadn’t been done.

Renters and landlords said that while they were skeptical about the potential efficacy of the community process they ultimately came to support its work, and they asked the council to move forward with the recommendations, which they characterized as “discussion points.”

Gallagher & Lindsey’s Don Lindsey and Angela Hockabout, founder of the Alameda Renters Coalition, said they’d like to continue to work together to address rents issues.

Still, landlords urged the council to refrain from imposing rent controls, saying they think a strengthened Rent Review Advisory Committee should be sufficient to handle what they characterized as a small number of “exorbitant” rent increases.

"We care about Alameda. We like owning property in Alameda, We believe in the idea of fairness," said Lindsey, who owns and manages hundreds of units on the Island.

Lindsey and other landlords said they don’t support such big increases, and that local landlords typically intervene when they hear of such cases to try to get those seeking such increases to reconsider them.

“I think peer pressure is the best way to handle this,” said Bruce Karnes, a landlord who said he owns two Victorians on the Island.

But some renters who told their stories about rent increases and lost housing said they thought the council should do more than just strengthen the rent review committee.

"Council has a bigger responsibility than just dealing with this on a case by case basis," said Brian McGuire, who said the city should make changes to the municipal code to address rising rents.

Rasheed Shabazz said he supported the community process but that he would like to see the city go further by gathering the data council members said they intended to collect. Shabazz said he was among the hundreds of people evicted from Harbor Island Apartments in 2004; being in the same place for nine years has provided him with the stability to achieve other things that included attending the University at California, Berkeley.

"One of the takeaways of that is that this displacement is constant, especially against African Americans,” he said.

City Manager John Russo said he could prepare a plan to move forward on the discussion points in 90 days.


Submitted by C. (not verified) on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

So mere peer pressure from other landlords is supposed to be the way to keep greedy landlords in check? I guess that works if you function in an insular small town with a handful of landlords and property management associations in defacto control of setting rent rates. How could anyone argue that such a "police our own" mentality could ever protect tenants? The lack of transparency alone should be troubling.

Submitted by Kristen (not verified) on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

Agreed. The fox guarding the hen house always works out for the best, doesn't it?

Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

The mediation approach favored by Don Lindsey and other landlords is worth trying.

I sincerely hope and pray that the measures presented last night by Jeff Cambra, Angela Hockabout, and Don Lindsey from the community rental housing discussion group and Alameda's Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC) will solve the crisis of skyrocketing rents, especially for low- and fixed-income renters in Alameda who already have the fewest resources and the least support available.
And I deeply appreciate the efforts of local "landlords with a heart" like Bruce Karnes to provide their tenants with stable, below-market-rate rents. I want to see local landlords who are reasonable be sustained and supported as they provide housing to those of us who need it. I understand the problems with legal forms of rent stabilization, and would never want to see landlords like Bruce face a more difficult time in order to see renters protected from injustice.

But what happens when mediation fails and renters face eviction within 30-60 days if they cannot afford stiff increases of 10-30 percent or more and a landlord refuses to be reasonable? (The worst offenders, according to the Alamedan on 1/15/15, seem to be non-Alameda absentee landlords:

I fear that the unreasonable landlords who have been unjustly raising rents by 25-65% on renters--without making any significant improvements or providing safe and clean units in the first place--may simply scoff at any "Alameda way" mediation process and displace long-time tenants simply in order to charge higher "market rate" rents to someone else.

If the RRAC has no legislative authority to restrict or stop unreasonable and unjustified rent increases and unjust evictions, where will renters go? To whom can they turn for fair treatment and reasonable prices in housing--as well as for justice--if not the City of Alameda?

Although I hope that establishing a rent stabilization mechanism in Alameda will not be necessary, I hope that landlords and property managers will be willing to discuss such a mechanism without automatically rejecting it.

If what was said many times last night is true--that parties from all sides of Alameda's housing issues can make great strides together by entering a constructive conversation--it should also be possible to successfully discuss and craft a practical and fair mechanism for protecting renters against egregious rent increases while supporting and protecting landlords who are fair to their tenants.

Submitted by Jeff Cambra (not verified) on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

To "C" and Kristen:

I can appreciate your skepticism about this self policing solution. However, there are a number of housing providers that take their responsibility to the community very seriously.

A perfect example just took place. On January 6th, the Rent Review Advisory Committee heard six cases all involving one apartment building. The raises were all 18% and ranged from $225 to $295 (I think). The past history of rent increases was $50 to $75. There was no apparent reason for such a large rent increase other than the landlord did a market survey and found the rents were low.

At the RRAC hearing, the owner's attorney refused to budge a dollar on the increases. Once a number of landlords and property management companies found out about the results, they contacted the owner and said that this is not the way we do business in Alameda. After a number of discussions, the owner agreed to accept the RRAC recommendation of 10%.

At this time, a number of tenants and housing providers are working on a series of steps to deal with these situations. The RRAC has a 75% success rate (not including the cases that settle before the hearing) and the community will deal with the few that don't get resolved. We are planning on monitoring every case and being proactive in finding solutions that work for both tenants and housing providers.


Jeff Cambra, Community Facilitator

Submitted by Angela Hockabou... (not verified) on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

One part of this peer pressure method that hasn't yet been explored is the ability for the Alameda Renters Coalition to peacefully protest in front of a building that has had exorbitant increases with landlords who refuse to negotiate in the RRAC or with Alameda's housing providers. We consider this a last resort tactic -we prefer that landlords not make exorbitant increases to begin with or work with the RRAC, but we will support our fellow renters with peaceful protest if it has to come to that.

Renters and many Alameda housing providers agree: exorbitant rent increases are bad for Alameda. That's why we're working together.

Submitted by EHirshberg (not verified) on Thu, Jan 22, 2015

One serious problem with holding rents below market is that a leasehold of some value is created. The holder of this leasehold will generally try to realize the value of the leasehold when they move, whether or not it is legal to do so. We commonly see this in other rent controlled areas. This is usually done by charging "key money". Depending on the value of the leasehold the key money can sometimes be thousands of dollars. The effect of this is to deny housing opportunity to new entrants into the market place. Gradually the ability to put a month's salary down and rent an apartment is lost. One of the great things about this country is that you can rent an apartment relatively cheaply and easily. Other countries that have long had rent control are unable to offer this freedom to their citizens.

Submitted by AJ (not verified) on Thu, Feb 5, 2015

I am both a landlord in Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. Thus I have a full range of experience on both sides of the issue of rent control compared to open market rents. First let me say the landlord property taxes increases by 2% a year regardless if rents are increased or not. Of course he must submit a request for re evaluation which may or may not be approved. None the less the epenses continue to rise, water, sewer, license fees, repair cost, insurance, and on and on. I can assure you the increase is much greater in all categories then the phony CPI index controlled by the government which no one believes. I can guarantee you with the current drought situation continuing the cost of water will dramatically increase going forward. If you want to see property in decline, put in place rent control. the landlord has no motivation to spend money on a tenant that has been in a unit for 10, 20 years with small increases. I grew up in the east coast and rent control destroyed the Bronx. We are a nation that was built on free market and where competition is strong properties are maintained, landlords compete. If my units have not been updated with marble counter tops hardwood floors etc believe me I will not be able to rent to quality individuals at market rents. Having been an owner for over 15 years I can tell you my rents have always been behind market rents compared to Oakland. In the last 25 years I would expect Alameda population has probably doubled. One would think this would put a pressure on rents and drive up the unit cost. Yet, only now am I getting $1700 for a 2 bedroom 1.5 bath townhouse style unit situated in the central part of Alameda. In Oakland I raised the rents by $20 for 2015 and still received complaints. This is for a 2br 1.5 bath apartment 5 blocks from BARt and walking distance to downtown. The tenant pays $1,095 a month and has been there for over 20 years. The market rent is $1700. I offered him $5,000 to move and his wife said she wouldn't move for anything less then $100,000. Do you really think I want to repaint, re floor, install new appliances in their unit? The previous landlord due to the low rents lost his entire investment and was foreclosed on. Then tenant is still there. Rent control in my opinion is destructive and eats away slowly but surely at the quality of community,

Submitted by xyllene (not verified) on Tue, Jun 2, 2015

Not sure what the reviewer below me is talking about but i recently had the pleasure of doing business with Mr. Guillermo & Eloy from Harbor prop Management. These guys are polite & do the very best to make your experience a good one. Check'em out.
They're located in the heart of downtown San Pedro.