Here is my story of what happened to me at the Oakland CA Rent Board. The Rent Board hears petitions, using a hearing officer, from tenants or landlords to right claimed wrongs. The losing side may appeal to the Rent board to correct errors in the hearing officers' decision and ask for a re-hearing.
My case started in Dec. 2013 when the landlords petitioned the Rent Board for a certificate of exemption which, if granted, would mean they would be exempt from Rent Board rules about raising rents and petitioning for redress. Their certificate of exemption is based on the claim of “new construction” which means no one lived there before 1983. As evidence that the unit could not be exempt under “new construction” I submitted a letter from a tenant who had lived in my unit from from 1977 to 1981 along with his residential Oakland phone book listing for several years.
The hearing officer rejected my letter because it was not signed under penalty of perjury although there is no law or regulation that says that in an administrative hearing that letters have to be submitted under penalty of perjury. In addition, the hearing officer accepted a letter not signed under penalty of perjury, submitted by the landlord, and went on to misquote the letter to favor the landlord.
The exemption was granted, although the decision contained many errors by the hearing officer and was based on what seems to be a blatant lie by the landlords who stand to gain financially from the exemption.
I appealed to the Rent Board and submitted a declaration, now under penalty of perjury, from the previous tenant that he lived in my unit with his daughter in the late 1970's; he knew the landlord from graduate school and there was a door between his section of the building and the section the landlord lived in. I also managed to find a second tenant who lived in my unit in 1977-78 and who now lives in Brooklyn NY, and submitted his declaration written under penalty of perjury.
The Rent Board denied the appeal for 2 reasons. 1. They wanted to show deference to the hearing officer who could “see, touch, hear, feel, smell” the demeanor of the participants. And 2. - It was theoretically possible for me to find the 2nd tenant, who lived in my unit for a year 30 years ago and now lives in Brooklyn, in order to present his evidence in the short time given for presenting evidence at the original hearing. In our brief we mentioned the case of Bell v. Tenants where the Rent Board allowed a landlord to go back 14 years and present evidence that he couldn't initially find, but to no avail.
What if the hearing officer got out of bed that day and couldn't smell? Apparently, with this Rent Board, a sense of smell trumps the fact that 2 tenants said, under penalty of perjury, that they lived in my unit in the 1970's.
To paraphrase the Bard, Something's rotten in the State of Oakland.
A strong dissent was written to the decision by one of the Board members, Noah Frigault.
Finalizing the decision against me was put off a number of times. Since the 1st vote the deputy City Attorney realized that the landlord indicated that the building was 4 units and that the other tenants hadn't been included in the hearing, but the exemption was for the building and they would also lose the protection of the rent ordinance. So it was determined to hold a 2nd hearing on the exemption of the other 3 units to see if they were exempt. It was specified that I couldn't participate in the hearing or present evidence. Even though the status of the other 3 units would affect the status of the building and thus my status. This effectively denied me due process.
We submitted an intervention request and asked to present evidence about the other 3 units. At the original hearing one landlord testified that the other landlord lived in one of the units in the 1970's which would have made the building not exempt. I wanted to bring up this evidence. The hearing officer in this further hearing, Linda Moroz, the same hearing officer who issued the original exemption, had the intervention in hand and said she was not going to deal with it at the hearing because it was not appropriate.
Evidence that was already entered into the record about someone who had lived in one of the 3 units, that would have made the unit not exempt, was not appropriate to use in a hearing about whether the units were exempt. Huh? What? The hearing officer is required to consider all the evidence before her. The hearing officer declared that the other 3 units were exempt. Was there a rabbit hole that led to this wonderland of dysfunction? Think Marx Brothers when you think about the Oakland Rent Board – I would not want to be in front of any Board that would have me as a petitioner.
I appealed this hearing decision. The 2 appeal hearings were put off and rescheduled a number of times. Finally they were considered on May 14, 2015. The landlords moved to dismiss the result on the other 3 units. I believe that they did this because they knew that they would have lost this part, based on the evidence, and they didn't want that to affect the affirmation on the original decision that my unit was exempt (there is a first vote by the board on the petition and then, supposedly a few weeks later, there is an affirmation of that vote that finalizes it). This final hearing was very quick and strange. There was essentially no discussion on the merits of either appeal. The landlords made their motion then the chairman of the board made a 3 prong motion incorporating what the landlords motioned, then rewriting the wording of the original decision against me by the hearing officer (thus favoring the landlords) because the chairman said that that was what the hearing officer actually meant, and then incorporating the affirmation of the original decision against me. The motion was passed 3 – 2 with the 2 tenant representatives voting for me and 3 others against me including one “independent” member who had initially voted against me but in a subsequent session said “if I knew then what I know now, I would have voted differently”. Yet she voted against me again. This is not justice and fairness. This is a dysfunctional and capricious Rent Board that does not appear to want to understand any case that is not cut and dried. Or it is a board that is beholden to outside interests. Or it is a Board that realized that it had made a mistake and didn't want to admit that and just wanted to get the matter off their table no matter how unjust their decision.
The landlords and the Rent Board have dragged me through more than a year and 1/2 of this harrowing, capricious, dysfunctional process.
The facts of this case jump out at any audience willing to listen. The declaration by the previous tenant that he lived there in the late 1970's and knew the landlord from graduate school who then lived next to him in the same building, and yet the landlords are petitioning for an exemption based on the claim that no one lived there before 1983. Then, the disregarding of evidence, already in the record, for the further hearing of the other 3 units that show that the landlord lived in one of the units in the 1970's which would make the building not exempt. Plus all of the other errors made by the hearing officer that favor the landlords. This makes me question whether there is some corruption involving the hearing officer or whether she is simply not competent in applying the law and regulations.
Beyond my case this Rent Board seriously needs reform It consists of 2 tenant representatives, 2 landlord representatives, and 3 “independent” representatives who usually vote with landlords on any cases that are slightly nuanced. This means that tenants, people who actually live in Oakland, are not fairly represented on the Rent Board.
From Article 1 Residential Rent Adjustment Program
8.22.010 Findings and purpose. A. The City Council finds that a shortage of decent, safe, affordable and sanitary residential rental housing continues to exist in Oakland. This shortage is evidenced by a low vacancy rate among such units throughout the city and a continually increasing demand for such housing. Many residents of Oakland pay a substantial amount of their monthly income for rent. The present shortage of rental housing units and the prevailing rent levels have a detrimental effect on the health, safety, and welfare of a substantial number of Oakland residents, particularly senior citizens, persons in low and moderate income households, and persons on fixed incomes. Stability in their housing situation is important for individuals and families in rental housing. In particular, tenants desire to be free from the fear of eviction motivated by a rental property owner’s desire to increase rents. Rental property owners desire the ability to expeditiously terminate the tenancies of problem tenants.
Nice words but the Rent Board is stacked with people who tend to vote with landlord interests. This is contrary to the intent of the regulation. It should be tilted slightly to favor the people who live in Oakland.
At present there are only 2 tenant representatives out of 7. The others are all landed representatives - landlords and homeowners who tend to vote with each other. Renters comprise over 58% of the population of Oakland and there needs to be a fairer balance on the Rent Board. How many tenants over the years have been harmed by a Board that generally votes with landlord interests? How many more tenants will be harmed before the City Council reforms the makeup of the Board?
City council has oversight responsibility for the Rent Board yet nothing has been done to reform the Board. I believe that the City Council has been derelict in its oversight duty. This is a capricious and dysfunctional Rent Board. In these times when low income tenants in hot real estate areas are getting edged out of their homes, the Rent Board should be defending justice and fairness for tenants as indicated in the reason for the existence of the Rent Board and not exhibiting dysfunction. The East Bay Express wrote about my situation on Aug. 27, 2014. I hope that the national media pick up the story. It just calls out for a heavy dose of sarcasm about how the Rent Board treats the citizens of Oakland. And it is an example of how people throughout the country who get into administrative and oversight positions put a lower value on justice for ordinary citizens .
I have started 2 online petitions to reform and re-balance the Oakland Rent Board. It would help if you would look at them and, if you agree, sign them.