EBMUD considers helping renters in foreclosure

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Charles Burress
San Francisco Chronicle

In another sign of fallout from the
foreclosure epidemic, the East Bay's largest water agency today will
consider whether to ban itself from turning off water to rental
properties where the landlord has stopped paying the bill.

Faced with reports of landlords and banks in foreclosure cases who
stop paying water bills as a way to illegally evict tenants, the East
Bay Municipal Utility District is considering a proposal to place liens
on landlords' property to collect the unpaid charges.

At the same time, the district would keep the water flowing to the
tenants of the building, said EBMUD board member Andy Katz, prime
sponsor of the proposal.

Katz said the plan, which would apply to rental buildings where the
landlord is responsible for the water bill, is modeled after the policy
of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which uses liens to
collect delinquent charges on rental properties where landlords are
responsible for the bills.

The idea was approved by the board's finance subcommittee March 11,
following appeals from the activist organization Just Cause Oakland,
Oakland tenant Kim Isaac-Ray and others. The water was shut off in
December at the foreclosed duplex where Isaac-Ray and her children live
in West Oakland, according to Kim Ota of Just Cause.

Katz said that Just Cause asked him for help in the Isaac-Ray case
and that he helped get her service restored. It was shut off for a day,
Ota said.

"Landlords seeking unlawful evictions are using water termination to
force tenants to move," the Alameda County director of public health,
Anthony Iton, said in a March 10 letter to the board.

Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and
Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Larry Reid are among those who wrote the
board in support of protecting tenants and holding property owners
accountable when they are responsible for the bills.

An EBMUD survey of bill payment since February found 26 multifamily
properties with delinquent water bills in the district, which serves
1.3 million customers from Crockett to San Leandro.

Three of the properties later had their bills paid, and the water
remains turned on for the remaining 23 while the district pursues
existing notification and warning procedures for those responsible for
payment, according to a staff report prepared for today's board meeting.

A district survey of nine utilities found that eight of them have
the same collection policy as EBMUD for unpaid bills, which is to stop
service and refer the unpaid bills to a collection agency, according to
a March 20 staff report. San Francisco was the only one of the nine to
use liens.

"Everybody's watching this to see what we will do," said EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy.

The proposed change in EBMUD policy comes amid what advocates for
tenants call an alarming surge in illegal eviction attempts caused by
the subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis.

"It's really kind of an epidemic in Oakland and Berkeley," said Anne
Omura, executive director of Oakland's Eviction Defense Center, a
nonprofit legal-aid group helping poor renters. "I've never seen a time
like this in terms of these foreclosure evictions. The cases are
heartbreaking. We have a lot of elderly and disabled clients whose
landlords have been foreclosed on."

Several cities - including Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco -
have "just cause" eviction laws that allow tenants to remain in rental
properties that are sold unless the new owner intends to move in or
convert its use.

Omura said it's difficult to determine whether landlords and banks
stop paying utility bills as a deliberate strategy to evict tenants,
but her agency is seeing attempted eviction cases where the taps have
run dry. A property owner is legally required to keep rental units

"It's definitely a trend we've seen," she said, mentioning "one in Hayward and one in Berkeley where they've cut off the water."

Oakland City Attorney John Russo said in a report Friday that
property owners are using a variety of tactics to illegally evict
tenants in foreclosure cases.

"Based on the evidence we are seeing in the city attorney's office,
a large number of evictions resulting from bank foreclosure are
deceitful, unjust and flagrantly illegal under local and state law," he

"An increasing number of renters are being kicked out of their homes
after banks foreclose on rental properties. Many are families - good
tenants who have never missed a rent payment. But they are being forced
out because banks can realize more profit from a vacant property."

To get involved

Today's EBMUD board meeting will be held at 1:15 p.m. at the utility's headquarters, 375 11th St., Oakland.

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