How Oakland Tenants Forced Their Landlord To Turn Over the Keys
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Author: Mathilde Lind Gustavussen
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When Maria Montes de Oca and her family moved into their apartment in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland fourteen years ago, there were already problems. The apartment clearly hadn’t been maintained; the carpet was stained and damaged, and neither the stove nor the fridge worked. Later on, there were cockroach infestation and mold issues. When Maria tried to get the landlord, Calvin Wong, to carry out repairs or fumigate, he would ignore her requests or tell her he’d use her security deposit to pay for it — a practice that’s illegal in California.

Yet in spite of the mounting maintenance and habitability issues, the rent kept going up. Maria’s fourteen-unit building wasn’t protected by rent control as a result of California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which precludes certain units from being subject to municipal rent ordinances. In Oakland, that includes apartments built after 1980.

In 2016, after carrying out structural repairs to the building while ignoring the tenants’ complaints, Wong raised the monthly rent by $500 dollars. In Maria’s case, that was nearly a 50 percent increase — an unthinkable amount. That’s when she began talking with her neighbors and discovered that they were facing similar issues. After reaching out to a legal center, the tenants were connected to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a statewide grassroots organization that supports and organizes tenants locally. “We told them about the rent hikes, about the conditions of the apartments, and about our concerns, and ACCE taught us how to organize among ourselves and the ways in which we could fight back against this kind of situation,” Maria told Jacobin in Spanish.

The tenants began holding meetings, sending written maintenance requests, and carrying out various actions. Eventually they engaged Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), which focuses on preserving and expanding affordability in Oakland’s low-income areas. Founded in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, OakCLT works closely with ACCE and has a track record of purchasing both vacant and tenant-occupied properties, removing them from the speculative market, and placing them under community control. But when OakCLT, with the tenants’ support, reached out to the landlord to inquire about his interest in selling the building in late 2018 and again in 2019, they were rebuffed. In response, the tenants launched a rent strike in October 2019 that would ultimately become the longest rent strike in Oakland history. It ended in victory.

The situation the Fruitvale tenants found themselves in, facing an exploitative landlord seeking to squeeze profits through continuous rent increases, legislative loopholes, and maintenance neglect, is emblematic of the state of tenant-landlord relationships in cities across the United States. As a result of financialization, gentrification, and the rollback of tenant protections, housing has been thoroughly commodified — the use value of a place to live subordinate to the potential for profit maximization. And with rents that continue to soar to historic highs, combined with decades of wage stagnation and, more recently, rampant inflation, tenants are increasingly facing displacement at the hands of their landlords, be they corporate or so-called mom and pops.

The narrative of the mom-and-pop landlord who owns just a few buildings or units and depends on tenant income for their livelihood has been promoted by the real estate lobby for years, and particularly during the pandemic, to argue against renters’ protections like eviction moratoria and rent control. Grace Martinez, director of ACCE Oakland, told Jacobin:

You have these large landlords, and this entire industry, using that narrative about poor grandma and grandpa, these small landlords. But really, it’s grandma and grandpa evicting and terrorizing other grandmas and grandpas. So what exactly is more valuable? Is it someone’s investment? Or is it someone’s ability to live and be sheltered?

Regardless of size or institutional configuration, landlordism remains an inherently exploitative system premised on profiting off someone else’s need for shelter, enshrined by a legal framework that protects property rights over housing needs at every turn. Within the current structure, tenants have very little control over their own housing or how it’s managed, and are instead subject to the whims of landlords who can raise rents, deny basic repairs, and in many cases carry out evictions with limited recourse for tenants and very few deterrents and consequences — even when they fail to follow legal procedures already stacked in their favor.

For the Fruitvale tenants, the lack of control was a sticking point. In addition to their frustration with their apartments’ disrepair, many worried about being displaced by the consistent rent hikes. So when nine of the tenants initiated their rent strike, they wanted to force their landlord to the negotiating table with the hope of eliminating him from the equation altogether — decommodifying their homes and ensuring tenant control in the process.

Decommodify and Democratize

When their rent strike began, in late 2019, the Fruitvale tenants demanded that the landlord either carry out the much-needed repairs or sell the building to OakCLT. They intensified the pressure through TV and radio interviews and by reaching out to tenants from other buildings owned by their landlord, showing up at his home and business, and holding a Halloween-themed protest. In response, the landlord hounded tenants via texts and letters placed under and on tenants’ front doors demanding they pay their mounting rent debt or “face the consequences” (i.e., eviction) while taking punitive measures like denying Maria access to the building’s washing facilities when her apartment was infested with cockroaches.

Four months into the rent strike, after having rejected their initial offers, Calvin Wong caved and agreed to meet with OakCLT in February 2020 to discuss a possible sale. But when the pandemic hit a month later, negotiations fizzled. The tenants continued their rent strike, now with the protection of the COVID-19 eviction moratoria. Nevertheless, Wong raised the rent by an additional $100 dollars a month, in the middle of a global pandemic, and later tried to pressure the tenants to apply for rental assistance through the rent relief program. Maria described a heated exchange in which the landlord came to her door, and her daughter, who was translating for Maria, grew fearful that the landlord would get physical with them: “I kept telling him that we are not going to apply. ‘Either you do the repairs or we’re going to keep the strike going.’”

Even with the eviction moratoria in place, some of the Fruitvale families moved out, fearing that displacement was inevitable. Others lost hope and ended their participation in the strike. For the families who stayed and watched their rent debt grow month after month, the pressure took a toll. Jesus Alvarez, who moved in eighteen years ago and lives with his wife and two children, said in Spanish: 

It was just a really hard time. I was very worried for my family because if we didn’t reach our goal, we didn’t know what would happen. It was hard to fall asleep at night because the worrying was constant. It wasn’t good for my health.

In mid-2021, with the tenants nearly two years into their rent strike, OakCLT submitted a letter of intent and reengaged Calvin Wong about a possible sale. OakCLT spent much of the rest of the year negotiating the deal, and in December 2021, just as the tenants were preparing for a Las Posadas–themed protest, reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, they learned that Wong had agreed to sell, turning the protest into a celebration.

OakCLT purchased the building for $3.3 million dollars using municipal bond funds from Oakland’s Measure KK, an infrastructure bond passed in 2016. The use of municipal infrastructure bond funds for the decommodification of housing indicates an emerging commitment to the preservation of affordability as well as a recognition that homes, and existing tenants of those homes, are part of the city’s critical infrastructure — a testament to years of hard work put in by tenants and organizers. (Although the funding available under Measure KK has run out, ACCE and other organizations are campaigning for another housing and infrastructure bond measure that will be on the ballot in November.) It’s also a departure from the last forty years of entrepreneurial city governance that has prioritized for-profit projects and policies strategically designed to attract investment, encourage economic growth, and improve the city’s standings with bond-rating agencies over public need.

OakCLT assumed ownership in June of this year, and is starting a process of building capacity with the tenants to ultimately transfer ownership of the building through a Limited Equity Housing Cooperative (LEC) — a housing model that grew out of the labor movement in the early twentieth century and draws on Scandinavian cooperative housing traditions. The tenants will eventually be collectively responsible for the management, maintenance, and financing of the building in partnership with OakCLT, which will continue to hold the land in trust and provide tenants with a ninety-nine-year ground lease that renews automatically. Combined with the LEC resale formula and the use of municipal funds, this prevents the building from returning to market rate, and OakCLT will have a right of first refusal if a tenant moves out. The rent, meanwhile, will be affordable in perpetuity and regulated through the city, which means the tenants will no longer have to worry about annual rent hikes. Steve King, executive director of OakCLT, explained:

We’re not doing this work to create a traditional affordable housing organization. We’re really trying to create an infrastructure where we can bring properties in through this pathway, stabilize tenants, and eventually transition them to resident ownership. That will free up our capacity to keep the cycle moving.

The emphasis on resident ownership is significant, because although community land trusts provide a mechanism for decommodification, not all share or maintain OakCLT’s commitment to tenant control. Instead, many fashion themselves more as affordable housing providers, not the harbingers of collective participation and ownership envisioned by the Civil Rights Movement organizers who pioneered the concept in the 1960s. The root cause of this development, writes Olivia R. Williams, is the dependency on external funding streams that necessitates both a professionalization of the organization and a reorientation of goals to meet intricate grant stipulations and requirements rather than ideals about housing democratization and participation.

But beyond permanent affordability, resident control and influence on land-use decisions should be at the center of housing, whether public, private, or provided by a CLT. Tenant control is necessary to combat what David Madden and Peter Marcuse term “residential alienation,” describing the psychosocial experience of home as another precarious place that results from our hypercommodified housing system — the feelings of dread, anxiety, and disempowerment Alvarez described suffering. Housing should be a manifestation of the residential needs of those who live there, not a vehicle for someone else’s profit accumulation.

That is what the Fruitvale tenants achieved, with support from ACCE and OakCLT, through a six-year struggle, using a nearly two-and-a-half-year rent strike and a CLT as tactic and tool. They forced the decommodification and democratization of their housing, putting tenants at the center of decisions regarding their homes, and winning both stability and agency. They hope their victory can be used as a blueprint for other tenants in similar situations.

Alvarez says: “I feel a huge weight off my shoulders. It’s been a massive change for my family. It brings me peace that I can finally sleep well at night knowing that this whole situation is over.”

A New Tool in the Belt

More tenants will likely have an opportunity to achieve what the Fruitvale tenants did using a type of legislation known as Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Acts (TOPA), which are being passed or reviewed in cities across the United States, including in Oakland. TOPA legislation requires landlords to notify tenants if they decide to sell a property, giving tenants the chance to purchase their building or, in some cases, transfer that right to a “qualified purchaser” — typically a nonprofit or CLT with community ties and a track record of managing housing. Tenants then have a limited period of time to form an association and secure funding as well as the right to match an offer from another buyer, putting them in position to collectively purchase and own their homes, often in an LEC structure.

Giving tenants a first right of purchase helps level the playing field with corporate landlords that are buying up large shares of the housing stock while also helping stabilize neighborhoods by preventing “flipping.” Ideally, invoking TOPA removes homes from the speculative market entirely, although that is not always the case. In Washington, DC, where the legislation was first implemented in 1980, the TOPA regulations lack a permanent affordability requirement unless public funds are used for the purchase, meaning tenants who purchase their building using private funds can later sell it at market rate. DC tenants are also allowed to sell the right to purchase to the highest bidder, whether nonprofit or for-profit, counteracting TOPA’s potentially stabilizing effects on tenants and neighborhoods.

But if crafted carefully, TOPA can be a tool for decommodification and democratization, and most cities that are drafting this type of legislation are putting permanent affordability and community control covenants in place to prevent the pitfalls of the DC version. (Although many buildings in DC remain LECs as a result of TOPA, as Amanda Huron writes.) In addition to these safeguards, cities and states need to expand funding streams to make TOPA accessible, since tenants invoking TOPA are still required to pay market rate, as well as provide adequate support and guidance for those looking to exercise their right to purchase. If those elements are in place, however, tenants whose landlord decides to sell their building can achieve what the Fruitvale tenants did and avoid being at the mercy of slumlords or corporate landlords, ultimately securing a permanent right to stay put.

As eviction rates skyrocket across the nation, reaching or even exceeding pre-pandemic levels, and corporate finance deepens its colonization of the rental-housing sector, it’s imperative to invest in not only the preservation but a massive expansion of housing stock that remains off the speculative market and under tenant control. This will require a commitment to a host of different policy interventions and housing models, ranging from public housing, housing cooperatives, limited equity co-ownership, and universal rent control to expanded tenant protections that secure tenant tenure, expropriation of expiring affordable and vacant housing, regulation of corporate landlords, and CLTs — as well as TOPA legislation.

If crafted with an emphasis on tenant control, these models and interventions can help combat residential alienation and bring us closer to the realization of housing as a human right, not a tool for profit maximization.

Mathilde Lind Gustavussen is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Free University of Berlin.

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