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Organizations Ask Oakland Rent Board to Strengthen Tenant Protection Regulations

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Tenants living in The Vulcan Lofts, an artist live/work building near Fruitvale that has over 200 rental units, say that many who live there are not recognized by their landlord as tenants, which makes needed repairs and maintenance difficult or impossible to secure. New amendments to proposed regulations to the Tenant Protection Ordinance could help them if passed. Photo by Zack Haber.

A coalition of 10 different organizations have asked Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program (RAP) to amend proposed regulations to the Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO) in an effort to make replacing vacating roommates and filling extra space in rental units easier for tenants.

“In Oakland, tenants already have one-to-one replacement rights,” said Jackie Zaneri, a tenant attorney with ACCE Action, a grassroots organization that is leading the push to amend current proposed TPO regulations. “So if you have three roommates, and one of them moves out, you already have the right to bring in someone else. In practice, this right was difficult to enforce because there were not very good rules about when your landlord could just reject a new person.” But City Council has amended the TPO recently. On July 14, 2020, they approved additional language in the Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance that made it easier for tenants to accept new housemates or roommates.

The new language states that “a landlord shall not endeavor to recover possession of a rental unit if the landlord has unreasonably refused a written request by the tenant to add such occupant(s) to the unit.”

Other language the Council added specified that landlords cannot reject the written request to add occupants based on “the proposed additional occupant’s lack of creditworthiness, if that person will not be legally obligated to pay some or all of the rent to the landlord.”

The language helps most tenants in their ability to take in new roommates without those roommates having to prove creditworthiness to their landlord. It protects tenants

who want to pool money together and have one tenant pay rent as well as people who want to take in family members or friends who are unemployed.

There are some exceptions, such as units not covered under Just Cause and tenants who have already signed on to lease terms that prevent adding new roommates.

For many Oakland tenants, newly added language also allows them to add tenants beyond just replacing roommates, allowing for adding roommates to the total already living in a rental unit as long as that total does not exceed capacity limits set by the Council. These capacity limits are: “two persons in a studio unit, three persons in a one-bedroom unit, four persons in a two-bedroom unit, six persons in a three-bedroom unit, eight persons in a four-bedroom unit; or, the maximum number permitted under state law and/or local codes.” Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program has created proposed regulations to determine how the newly added language will be enforced, but ACCE, along with tenant unions and organizations that advocate for tenant rights, are calling for the proposed regulations to be changed to protect tenants more.

“We believe that the current proposed criteria still leave ample legal room for landlords to retaliate against tenants by refusing to accept new roommates,” states a letter written by ACCE wrote, signed by Oakland Tenants Union, SMC Tenants Council, Bay Area Legal Aid and six other organizations and then sent to RAP on November 12. The letter also included proposed changes to RAP’s regulations.

The coalition’s proposed changes call for more specific reasons that a landlord would be barred from denying a tenant space, including inability to pay rent during the local emergency related to the pandemic, refusing to provide information that is outside the reasonable scope of an application process, participation in a lawsuit as plaintiff, past participation in tenant organizing, contesting rent increases or filing complaints against landlords.

In situations where a new tenant would be signing onto a lease and agreeing to pay the landlord directly in a rental unit already being rented by others, a credit check could be allowed. But the coalition has suggested a provision where a new tenant could not be subject to stricter credit requirements than other tenants living in the unit.

The coalition is also requesting that additional language be added to a section that gives landlords the right to deny a unit or evict a tenant if it can be proven they have misrepresented significant facts on a housing application.

Their new language would prevent landlords from denying space to tenants who have used other names in the past or had minor discrepancies on credit reports.

In addition to protecting tenants who unintentionally make mistakes when filling out forms, Zaneri said the additional language protects trans and Latinx tenants.

“Tenant screenings can come back with different last names, but there’s a number of reasons why different names could come up,” she said. “They could be transitioning or gender non-conforming. They could be from a [culture] that uses multiple last names, and maybe only one of them comes up.”

The coalition has also asked RAP to eliminate a petition process in new proposed regulations that they say eases landlords’ ability to raise rents if landlords can prove that an original occupant no longer resides in a rental unit.

“We don’t believe that the Rent Adjustment Program should add a new process to allow landlords to raise rent where not required by state law,” reads the letter the coalition sent to RAP on November 12. “We also object to a new petition process that encourages landlords to spy on tenants. We have seen tenants whose landlords catalogued everyone who went into and out of their units or used security cameras to track their movements.”

If a petition process exists that allows landlords to evict tenants if they can prove original tenants no longer reside in a rental unit, the coalition worries such behavior could become more prevalent among landlords who act in bad faith but claim “that they are only collecting evidence for their petition.”

RAP heard public comments from the coalition and their supporters about the proposed amendments to proposed TPO regulations during their last meeting and is also considering the issue during their next meeting on December 10, at 5:00 p.m., when public comments can again be heard.

No regulations to the TPO have yet been codified and the RAP is still considering proposed amendments. Tenants can contact RAP for free help navigating tenant protections that have already been approved. Please call, (510) 238-3721, or on the web at: www.oaklandca.gov/topics/rent-adjustment-program

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