The City of Oakland, California is facing a major housing crisis. Like many other U.S. cities, issues of gentrification and displacement deeply affect low-income communities in Oakland, particularly communities of color. In the fall of 2014 the Oakland City Council successfully passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance, or TPO, in response to community pressure. The TPO promises to provide critical protections for renters as a first line of defense against displacement trends.
According to the city’s Housing Element, 59% of Oakland’s households are renters. The majority of renters in Oakland are people of color. Rental costs in the city went up 10% between 2013-20142, and 46% percent of Oakland residents now spend more than 35% of their income on housing costs. This lack of affordable housing leads to serious health consequences for communities, resulting from diminished capacity to pay for childcare, health insurance, nutritious food and compounded by a constant experience of stress3.
Causa Justa: Just Cause (CJJC), a multiracial community organization in Oakland, collected data about tenant’s issues during their tenant rights workshops. Between 2012-2014, CJJC data showed 196 cases of tenant harassment. Also according to Causa Justa data, 13.7% of tenants who made repair complaints faced subsequent harassment from their landlords. This data illustrates the connection between habitability issues and harassment—tenants may not reach out to code enforcement for fear of landlord retaliation.
When housing markets are tight, as they are in Oakland, implementing baseline protections for tenants becomes an essential foundation to prevent displacement. Even with eviction protections in place, landlords may still push tenants out of their homes through various forms of harassment, coercion, and/or neglect of basic property maintenance, so that units can be re-rented at higher rents or converted to condominiums.
The TPO protects tenants from sixteen types of harassment including failure to make needed repairs and maintenance, threats to call immigration authorities, and buyout offers. This policy to implement baseline protections for vulnerable residents is one of the first pillars in an anti-displacement strategy, as recommended in the report Development without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area put out by Causa Justa::Just Cause with research and analysis from Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD).
By defining and prohibiting major detrimental practices that affect predominantly people of color renters, the TPO creates an institutional mandate to promote racial inclusiveness and equity. It provides a way to track, monitor, adjudicate and prevent the types of abuses that most often jeopardize the housing situations of these communities. Advocates are currently working with the Rent Board to set up a data collection system for the TPO. Data collection will help the city understand who is most affected by tenant harassment, and also provide a basis for assessing the policy’s effectiveness.
The City Administrator’s office is working with stakeholders to establish an administrative procedure for handling tenant harassment complaints. The City’s Building Services Division, which runs the code enforcement program, is working to ensure that habitability issues are dealt with and cross-referring cases where tenants bringing complaints have received threats or retaliation from their landlords. This inter-departmental collaboration will help ensure tenants’ needs are met and that the policy is being implemented efficiently.
While the City of Oakland is proud to have passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance, it also recognizes that that strength of the policy will ultimately lie in its effective implementation and enforcement. Changing outcomes for racialized communities in local public systems doesn’t end with the political victory. Rallying public support and pressure to pass the TPO in Oakland was only the first step. A difficult process lies ahead in designing an effective administrative process and the scarce city resources needed to carry it out. But the City is committed to seeing the Tenant Protection Ordinance through, in order to advance a more racially equitable Oakland.