Steve Kalmbach was in a meeting in the conference room at his Pleasanton office when he looked through the glass windows to find a crowd of unwelcome visitors in the reception area. Some were his tenants from a Deep East Oakland neighborhood — there to protest his doubling of their rents.
“He got really angry and didn’t want to talk to us so we put fliers all around his office,” said Jorge Rojas who rents a two-bedroom house on 76th Avenue with his wife, two children and two dogs. The cops showed up and told the tenants to leave.
Since being notified in late August that their rents were going up $1,200 or $1,300 a month, the tenants in seven homes owned by the Piedmont investor had vowed to fight for more modest increases that would allow them to stay. Organized by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, they had previously picketed Kalmbach’s residence. Last Friday, they showed up at his workplace, Pulte Homes, Inc., where he is a division president.
Kalmbach’s attorney Daniel Bornstein did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In a previous statement, Kalmbach said that he had not increased rents in many years and that the higher amounts were legal and in keeping with market rates. He purchased the seven homes at a time when the foreclosure crisis had sent real estate values plunging. Kalmbach kept monthly rents stable, ranging from $1,000 to $1,200 then suddenly told his renters they’d have to pay twice as much come Nov. 1 or move out. Most of them were there when he bought the places.
Many of the tenants have school-age kids, and work as housekeepers, bussers, landscapers and in other low-paying occupations. They said they couldn’t find affordable places to live on such short notice. The seven families had agreed to push for $1,400-a-month across-the board rents for everyone, according to Justin Tombolesi, lead organizer for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which has been helping them negotiate with their landlord. But two families cut their own side deals after one woman told Kalmbach she would accept a $1,600-a-month rent during the protest at his office.
“It’s really disappointing but it’s a matter of fear,” Tombolesi said. “We see this all the time, where it’s ‘divide and conquer’ because the landlord has more power when he’s dealing with someone in a single situation. But the remaining five families are all the more riled up and pumped up to keep up the fight.”
Tombolesi said Kalmbach sent three families $1,800-a-month offers for a two-year-lease term, which they have not accepted.
Fernando Valdez, who lives in a two-bedroom house with his wife and 16-year-old son, said his brother’s family settled for a $1,600 rent. But Valdez said he hasn’t received a lower rent offer from the landlord and plans to pay his current $1,125 amount on Nov. 1.
“$1,600 sounds better but either way we don’t have that,” Valdez said. “I don’t know what will happen, maybe we’ll have to go to court.”
Rojas, a busser at a San Francisco restaurant, said he was disappointed that two families decided to go their own way, but he understood they felt they had little choice in today’s hot housing market. He said he received a new lease from Kalmbach for $1,800-a-month, up from the $1,000 he had been paying.
“I will try to fight it until the end,” Rojas said. “We understand everything is more expensive now, and I expected to get an increase, but what he did is not fair.”