Council members: Rising rents could prompt controls
Council members: Rising rents could prompt controls
City leaders said Tuesday they could consider imposing rent controls in Alameda after an emotional hearing about rent increases that drove an elderly couple and their disabled daughter from their home of 17 years.
“I’m not advocating for rent control this point – I’ve been on the City Council for two months. But if we keep hearing about cases like this, I’ll certainly consider it,” Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said.
Councilman Tony Daysog said he thinks the case should prompt a discussion about controls the city could consider, noting controls in place in Hayward and San Leandro. San Leandro has a rent review board similar to Alameda’s with slightly broader enforcement powers, while Hayward has rent stabilization rules that limit increases.
“This is a shot over the bow,” Daysog said. “A person coming into Alameda, coming in to jack up the rent because we don’t have rent control. This is an opportunity to start the discussion.”
Jose and Aura Lyla Gonzalez recently left their apartment on Benton Street after their rent was raised 67 percent, from $900 a month to $1,500 a month. The couple’s daughters and others who rent at the four-unit building complained to the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee, but the building’s new owner refused to appear at a pair of meetings the committee held to try to mediate the dispute.
One member of the committee, which voted to recommend the increases be lowered to 10 percent, said the rent increase imposed on the Gonzalezes was the biggest they’d seen.
A city staffer told The Alamedan that the committee process works best when both landlords and tenants participate and that they typically do. But the process is voluntary, and landlords aren’t required to implement the committee’s recommendations. If a landlord refuses to participate, the case could be forwarded to the City Council, as this case was. But the council – which voted unanimously Tuesday to send the property owner a letter regarding the increases – also lacks the power to enforce the recommendations.
In a pair of letters to the committee, Claudia Bowman of House Source LLC, the property’s new owner, cast the rent hikes as a business decision intended to cover the costs of purchasing the property. Bowman, who did not respond to interview requests and did not speak at Tuesday’s council meeting, noted in one letter that the committee process is voluntary and declined to participate and said in the other the company had checked with the city and a lawyer to make sure the city didn’t have rent control before buying the building.
“We wanted to be certain that we would be able to pass the expenses of a $650,000 purchase price, new taxes, and insurance as well as city requirements on to the tenants, in order for us to consider this investment,” a January 11 letter faxed from Bowman to the committee says.
Michael Shepherd, an attorney representing House Source LLC, told the council the home’s new owner is still charging below-market rents and that the money is needed to cover the $652,000 purchase price of the property and to improve what tenants and one neighbor said is a run-down property with a host of needed fixes.
“This landlord is not evicting these tenants from this property. They can stay, but they have to pay,” Shepherd said.
Through tears, the Gonzalezes’ daughter, Amparo Adlao, said her parents were responsible tenants who took care of their home as best they could, who now live in fear that they have no protection from another big rent increase.
“We’ve lived in Alameda a very long time,” Adlao said. “If it happened to my parents, it could happen to me. It could happen to anyone.”
Other tenants who still live at the Benton Street property asked the council whether they would allow rent increases like the ones they experienced – which they equated to an eviction notice - to continue.
“It’s just an awful feeling, to feel like you’re being driven out of your home. Market driven or not, who at this time can afford a 55 percent rent increase?” tenant Geoff Thorpe said. “These new owners are not willing to have a face-to-face conversation, they’re not willing to listen to any sort of reason. It’s just dollars and cents.”
Affordable housing advocates said cases like this one are proof the city needs more affordable housing, particularly for seniors and disabled people. They praised the council for allowing multifamily housing in Alameda for the first time in nearly 40 years and said it now must be built.
“Measure A has stopped the building of multifamily housing in this city for 30 years. That’s why landlords can take advantage of people and they can continue to do it,” Renewed Hope’s Laura Thomas said. “Now that the housing market has returned, we should see developers come to build multifamily housing.”
But some said they didn’t want the city to begin beating up on landlords and investors who are risking their money to buy housing here. Karen Bey questioned why the home’s prior owner didn’t raise the rents incrementally each year to cover improvements, something she said the City of Oakland – which has rent control – allows.
“The building has a lot of deferred maintenance. Somebody has to pay for that,” Bey said. “This is a conversation that we need to have. But I think it should be fair and balanced. There are two sides of the story.”
And while some speakers called for rent control to be put in place, Alameda Association of Realtors president Sally Han said that while rent issues are important, the association would like to see the city’s existing system remain as-is.
Council members said they think landlords like House Source give others a black eye. And some blasted the Realtors association for its position.
“Behaviors like this is what really put a bad reputation over landlords,” said Councilman Stewart Chen, who said he has been a landlord for the past decade.
Mayor Marie Gilmore, who will be signing a letter to send to House Source LLC regarding the rent increases, said the new landlord’s refusal to talk to tenants about the rent increases was as bad as the increases themselves.
“The fact that the landlord didn’t condescend to meet with her tenants showed a very high-handed and abusive attitude,” Gilmore said. “I don’t want to beat up on landlords, I know there are a lot of good landlords in town. But this landlord is not one of them.”
Gilmore told the Realtors association that she was glad they attended Tuesday’s meeting, but that she is also considering what speakers said about collecting data on rent control.
“If you don’t ultimately want us to get to the point where we’re looking at that and moving forward, then I think it’s incumbent on you guys to police your own,” she said.