Oakland tenants refuse to pay rent, demand landlord sell building

OAKLAND — A group of tenants living in a Fruitvale apartment
building haven’t paid their rent since October, and they don’t
plan to until their landlord gives them what they want — a chance
to buy the building.

The tenants say they went on strike after a series of rent
increases and the landlord’s failure to maintain their
apartments. Now they refuse to make another payment until the
landlord sits down and negotiates a deal that would allow them,
with the help of the nonprofit Oakland Community Land Trust, to
take over the property on 29th Avenue. Half of the building’s 14
households are participating, and with the strike in its fourth
month, their tactics may be working — a tenant rights group says
the landlord last week agreed to set up a meeting.

“We see it as a win,” said Israel Lepiz, housing organizer
with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
That’s the same organization that worked closely with Moms 4
Housing — a group of activists who recently took over an empty
West Oakland house and
s
ucceeded
in pressuring the owner to sell it to the land trust
.

As prices continue to climb out of reach of many of the city’s
longtime residents and wages don’t keep pace, a growing number of
residents are getting fed up and refusing to pay rent, said Leah
Simon-Weisberg, an attorney with ACCE. And such demonstrations can
be powerful, she said, pointing out that it was rent strikes in
Berkeley during the 1970s that eventually helped lead the city to
adopt rent control.

“I think it’s growing,” Simon-Weisberg said of the rent
strike movement, “and I think it will continue to grow unless we
really change the relationship between investment and
housing.”

The 29th Avenue building has been in a trust owned by trustees
Calvin and Melinda Wong since April, according to the Alameda
County Assessor’s Office. The Wongs could not be reached for
comment. A voicemail left for the property manager was not
immediately returned.

Though not involved in this case, San Francisco-based landlord
attorney Daniel Bornstein has represented Bay Area property owners
who have faced similar demands from activists to sell their
buildings. To him, the strategy seems like something straight out
of The Godfather films.

“To use the public flaying of someone to compel them to sell a
property is, in my mind, ugly, unfortunate and only aggravates the
polarization between community members,” Bornstein said. “We
are looking at what looks like a shakedown.”

California law allows tenants to withhold rent if the landlord
isn’t maintaining the property, Simon-Weisberg said. Many 29th
Avenue tenants complain of everything from broken doors to
cockroach infestations that they say the landlord has failed to
rectify.

Most of the residents are native Spanish speakers working
low-wage jobs, who have lived in the building for years. They’re
all paying about $1,550 a month, up, for most of them, from about
$750 when they moved in 10 or 15 years ago. As of December,
one-bedroom apartments across Oakland were renting for a median
price of about $2,500, according to Zillow.

The unrest in the building began in 2017, when 29-year-old
Daniel Flores took the prior owner to court to fight a recent rent
increase. He lost, with the court finding the increases were
justified because the building is too new to be protected under
rent control. After that defeat, Flores and some other residents,
determined to keep fighting, got together and reached out to tenant
rights groups for help.

The Oakland Community Land Trust, which
buys buildings and converts them to permanently affordable
housing
, got involved about a year ago. After several months of
negotiations — during which the landlord seemed interested in
selling — the land trust scraped together a $3.2 million offer
from various grants and investors, said Justin Tombolesi, who
handles acquisitions and resident development for the nonprofit. If
the deal had gone through, the tenants could have bought their
units from the land trust at below market value — and never had
to worry about another rent increase.

But the landlord rejected the offer.

ACCE and some of the tenants say they spent months trying to
bring the landlord back to the negotiating table, with no luck. But
after withholding their rent, they saw some progress last week
when Calvin Wong agreed to a meeting. The meeting hasn’t yet
been scheduled, and the tenants haven’t ended their strike. They
might wait until they have more clarity from the landlord — such
as an acknowledgment in writing of the Wongs’ intent to sell,
Lepiz said.

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Jesus Alvarez, a janitor who lives with his wife and two
college-age daughters and is participating in the rent strike, said
his family can afford the rent right now. But he’s worried about
the next increase, and the one after that. That’s why he hopes
the landlord will agree to sell.

“What will happen to me, to my family, next year?” he asked
in Spanish. “We want a safe place for our families. That’s
all.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Oakland tenants refuse to pay rent, demand landlord sell building